Consumer safety at risk after COVID-19 product controls expire


The government consumer watchdog has discovered a wide variety of dangers among toys and other products now on sale after secretly halting routine import inspections during the pandemic.

But the Consumer Product Safety Commission has still not answered fundamental questions from lawmakers about the risks to consumers from its decision to send its port inspectors home for nearly six months, a safety flaw exposed for the first time by USA TODAY.

In a new report to the US Congress, the agency also failed to disclose what it planned to do about unsafe products currently on the market.

He revealed numerous concerns during a pair of spot checks to assess potential damage, including red flags in the documents of 40 percent of the 56 companies he considered most at risk of having imported products. dangerous when closing the port inspection. The agency said it had carried out inspections and was now acting on “potential violations found.”

The agency also searched online for the types of products that port inspectors commonly cite for safety violations, such as children’s toys that may contain toxic levels of lead, the report notes. Of 75 products tested, almost half did not meet safety standards. The CPSC said it was taking enforcement action, without providing details.

The CPSC declined to answer USA TODAY’s questions about the report, which did not specify whether products found online entered through ports when CPSC inspectors were away.

“Major questions remain,” Representative Gus Bilirakis, a leading member of the House subcommittee overseeing the agency, said in a statement. The Florida Republican added that the report “fails to inform Congress of what happened in our ports during the nearly six months that port investigator staff were removed from their posts.”

Congress ordered the agency’s review after USA TODAY obtained internal documents detailing the port’s closure from mid-March to September and revealed the agency did not catch a single toy in the ports with toxic lead levels between June and July, usually one of the most frequent violations. .

After:Are Your Children’s Christmas Gifts Safe?

The 25-page report exposes other shortcomings in the control of dangerous imports. The CPSC has acknowledged that it routinely checks “a tiny fraction” of product entering the country and maintains a minimal presence at major points of entry for small online purchases and direct to consumers.

“This does not answer the central question of Congress: what has worked and where it has gone,” CPSC Commissioner Peter Feldman told USA TODAY. “I wonder if we’ve done our job here, and I’m afraid the consumer is still at risk.”

Acting commission chairman Robert Adler said even a significantly expanded port presence would remain “below what I think is needed to protect consumers”. At a meeting in April, he said the agency continued to face staffing limitations despite Congress’ swift response to port closures by sending it an additional $ 50 million to strengthen oversight.

“The CPSC may never go beyond being the stub of the litter box of regulatory agencies,” Adler said. “But we have to be a bigger, more aggressive runt.”

Central Biden’s candidate for withdrawal from port

The report comes at a critical time for the agency, which entered the pandemic with an annual budget of $ 133 million to ensure the safety of some 15,000 consumer products. This month, President Joe Biden appointed two new Commissioners to the CPSC.

One is Alexander Hoehn-Saric, attorney for the House Committee on Energy and Trade, who is said to be the agency’s first permanent chairman since 2017. The other is Mary Boyle, currently the agency’s executive director. and leader in last year’s decision to withdraw inspectors. ports.

Boyle had told the commissioners, who agreed to the withdrawal from the port in private conversations in March 2020, that the agency could search for the problematic products later through recalls, according to detailed meeting notes obtained by USA TODAY.

Safety advocates have long emphasized the importance of removing unsafe products before they are sold, as recalls are imperfect and often have low response rates.

Boyle was also tasked with deciding when it was safe for agency staff to return to the field under a strict COVID-19 re-entry plan, internal documents showed. She only cleared them in September.

In a statement, the agency defended actions in the event of a pandemic.

“The decisions made by the CPSC regarding both consumer and personnel safety during the pandemic – including the staffing of the port and the purchase and distribution of personal protective equipment – were made with the full participation, consultation and approval of all Commissioners, as appropriate for matters of this unprecedented nature, ”said CPSC spokesperson Joe Martyak.

Some commissioners raised concerns at the time about the withdrawal of inspectors from the port, and again when the shutdown was extended during the busy summer months for holiday shipments, USA TODAY reported.

In the report to Congress, the CPSC said it did not stockpile personal protective equipment before the pandemic, unlike other federal agencies that work in ports, and was unable to obtain supplies such as masks and gloves by the end of August.

Port inspectors continued to work remotely in partnership with US customs and border protection officials to perform “virtual examinations at ports while working from their home office,” according to the report.

The CPSC said it had recalled 65 of the types of consumer goods that would typically be intercepted at ports from the time it started working remotely until March 2021. That did not explain how the agency discovered they were dangerous.

Trade declined during the pandemic, but then, as port inspectors remained outside, it increased again.

The agency noted that it had issued fewer safety citations because trade had also declined during the pandemic. Imports reported through its risk assessment tracking system declined by up to 80% during the shutdown, the report noted.

However, the agency’s own charts show that these imports resumed in late summer, even though the agency’s port inspectors stayed home.

Consumer advocates called the report evidence of the challenges the agency faces.

Nancy Cowles, executive director of the nonprofit Kids in Danger, said the agency’s underfunding before the pandemic left her without the resources “to do much more than she did. “.

“I don’t think they were wrong in trying to protect the staff,” she said.

Remington Gregg, a lawyer for Public Citizen called the report “honest in its assessment of where the agency stumbled.” He said Congress shares responsibility for its underfunding.

But Gregg couldn’t determine from the report exactly how the CPSC plans to improve port operations, or who is responsible. The report does not have a named author and its title page includes a disclaimer that it does not necessarily reflect the views of the Commissioners.

“I don’t know who’s in charge of this, to be frank,” said Gregg. “You can’t expect miracles, but what you can expect is improvement.”

Congress sent $ 50 million to CPSC to improve

In April, Feldman called for more reports on the agency’s efforts to search for unsafe products that had passed through ports while inspectors were away. Other commissioners – meeting to discuss a $ 50 million funding injection passed by Congress as part of the pandemic stimulus bill – rejected his proposal.

“Make no mistake. Congress did not provide this additional funding because it believed we were doing a good job, or because it agreed with the decisions the committee had made throughout. pandemic, ”Feldman said at the hearing.

The spending plan, which was passed unanimously, increased the number of ports in which the agency has inspectors from 18 to 22. The agency plans to add 55 positions ranging from support staff to ship controllers. inbound online shopping.

“While I do not like the circumstances that led to this increase,” Commissioner Elliot Kaye said at the meeting, “I am grateful that Congress has finally recognized that we need more help with the both at the agency level in the broad sense, but especially in ports. ”

Kaye and CPSC Commissioner Dana Baiocco did not comment on the report.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who criticized the agency’s initial response to the pandemic, said in a statement that the report highlighted the agency’s “urgent need to increase funding and staff.” .

Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the CPSC, supports a proposal by the Biden administration to increase the agency’s annual budget by more than 25%, to $ 170 million.

“Staff limitations continue to weigh on the agency,” Schakowsky said in a statement. The report “once again shows that the CPSC needs more funding and resources to be able to do its job of keeping consumers safe.”

Letitia Stein and Tricia Nadolny are reporters for the USA TODAY Investigation Team. Contact Letitia at [email protected], @LetitiaStein, by phone or Signal at 813-524-0673 and Tricia at [email protected] or @TriciaNadolny.

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