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Congress stops playing games with toy safety

Enrique Barajas was poking around the little shops of the Toy District in downtown Los Angeles the other day with his 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. The store shelves were packed with inexpensive imports, mostly from China.

Barajas, 27, said he liked buying toys for his kids, but he found it hard to know what was safe and what potentially could harm them.

“The government should be doing more,” he said. “It’s never enough, what they do.”

That’s about to change.

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After months of wrangling, congressional leaders finally came to terms last week on landmark legislation that represents the most sweeping overhaul of U.S. product-safety rules in decades.

The Senate approved the bill Thursday after a similar vote by the House of Representatives a day earlier. President Bush is expected to sign the legislation into law.

“This is a huge deal,” said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for the Consumer Federation of America. “It’s going to change the products in the marketplace.”

Not immediately, though. The various provisions of the bill would be enacted at different times over the coming months. That means shoppers will have to remain vigilant when buying toys and other goods this holiday season.

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By next year at this time, though, the product-safety landscape could be very different. Among other things, the legislation would:

* Beef up the Consumer Product Safety Commission with new funding and resources. The commission is responsible for overseeing the safety of 15,000 product categories, including items as varied as toys, cribs, power tools and kitchen appliances.

* Require mandatory third-party testing of products for kids age 12 and under. Most such products are now subject to a mix of regulatory standards and frequently make it to store shelves without being tested in advance.

* Ban the sale of children’s products containing lead and certain types of phthalates, which are chemicals used to soften plastic that have been linked to long-term health problems.

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* Provide safeguards for whistle-blowers who alert authorities to unsafe products and industry practices.

* Establish a searchable database of all reports of deaths, injuries or illnesses related to consumer products.

The legislation would increase the penalty cap for civil fines to $100,000 from $5,000 for individual penalties and up to $15 million for violations involving multiple products. It also would require tracking labels that would allow officials to trace a product back to its factory in the event of a recall.

More than 45 million kids’ products -- mostly produced in Chinese factories -- were recalled last year.

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El Segundo’s Mattel Inc., the world’s largest toy maker, was responsible for about 20 million recalled toys. Some, like a die-cast vehicle depicting the Sarge character from “Cars,” were found to have lead in the paint. Others had small magnets that posed a risk of internal injuries if swallowed.

Then there was Hasbro Inc.'s Easy-Bake Oven, nearly a million of which had to be recalled after dozens of little girls were burned or had their hands caught in the oven’s door. One 5-year-old had to have a finger partially amputated.

Even though manufacturers and retailers vowed to crack down on defective products, the number of recalls of toys and children’s products increased 22% in the nine months ended June 30 from a year earlier, according to government data.

“The 22% increase suggests strongly that what the toy industry called ‘last year’s problem’ remains very much today’s problem,” said Ami Gadhia, policy counsel for Consumers Union.

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Jim Neill, a spokesman for the National Assn. of Manufacturers, said businesses generally supported strengthening the Consumer Product Safety Commission but were wary of other aspects of the legislation.

He said his organization was particularly concerned about the whistle-blower provision and the database of potentially unsafe products, both of which, he said, could lead to “unintended consequences.”

Neill also said a provision authorizing state attorneys general to help enforce federal safety laws “may blur the lines on national uniform standards.”

At this point, consumers need all the help they can get. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been a decidedly low priority for the Bush administration.

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The three-person commission has been without a chair since July 2006, when Bush appointee Hal Stratton left to take a job with a law firm that specializes in shooting down class-action lawsuits filed by consumers.

In March 2007, Bush nominated Michael Baroody, a leading manufacturing industry lobbyist, to head the commission. Baroody withdrew from consideration after lawmakers demanded copies of his severance agreement with the National Assn. of Manufacturers.

It now appears likely that no one will be appointed to the long-vacant post until after a new president is sworn in.

Meanwhile, consumers’ distrust of imported toys and the sour economy have taken a severe toll on many Toy District merchants. A number of shops have closed in recent months. Others are barely hanging on.

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“There’s no business,” said Michael Chang, a salesman at W.T. Toys on 4th Street. “Many stores are closing.”

He led me outside his shop and pointed to the adjacent toy stores. One went out of business a few months ago, Chang said. The other closed in July.

“Maybe we’ll be closed by Christmas,” Chang said of his own shop.

At nearby A-Mart Toys, salesman Michael La said the owner of his shop had already decided to pull the plug. “We’re finished selling toys,” he said.

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In the coming months, La said, the shop will be restocked with some other product -- bicycles, maybe.

What will be done with all the toys now filling the shelves, the Chinese-made dolls, action figures and remote-control cars?

La smiled. “We will sell them cheap to another company,” he said.

The new product-safety legislation won’t make those toys any safer. But it would go a long way toward ensuring that future toy shipments meet much higher standards.

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Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.


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