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Durbin toys with a new idea

By Michael M. Bates
web posted December 3, 2007

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) is really, really concerned these days about toy safety.  So, as the Dickster is wont to do when he's really, really concerned, he brought his massive intellect to bear in reaching a solution.  This was plainly a time for creative, original, innovative, out of the box ideas.  Think, think, think.  By Jove, he's got it!  More money for a government agency.

Durbin is backing a heavy increase in funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, known as the CPSC.  That agency is responsible for regulating toys, along with about 15,000 other product categories.

The Chicago Tribune reported Durbin's support for more money with the headline "Durbin has gift for kids, parents – Senator's bill offers $7 million to hire more toy inspectors."  In the mainstream media, you see, big government is a gift, bestowed on us by compassionate and charitable types like Dick Durbin.

Created in 1972, the CPSC was mandated to, among other charges, ‘protect the public against unreasonable risks of injury from consumer products."  Unsurprisingly, "unreasonable" wasn't defined.

The Illinois senator wants to see staffing levels at CPSC increased.  When the agency was activated, it had roughly twice as many employees as it does now.

What was the agency able to accomplish with more people?  Not much, the record shows.  A 1977 Washington Post news article reported it took the CPSC two and one half years to come up with a safety standard for matchbook covers.  Two years for standards and 15 pages in the Federal Register on swimming pool slides.  Three years for standards for the glass used in doors, windows and walls.

Early in the 70s, the government banned the sale of children's sleepwear that wasn't treated with a flame retardant.  The chemical Tris was soon used in almost all children's sleepwear.  Then, in yet another example of governmental good intentions gone awry, it was found that Tris caused cancer in rats and possibly humans.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission investigated "as a priority item" the potential link between Tris and cancer.  It took the CPSC more than a year to ban its use in children's apparel.  If it weren't handled on a priority basis, we'd perhaps still be waiting for a determination.

When Clinton the Impeached appointed a new chairman of the CPSC, she speedily announced, "I've never met a microphone I didn't like and I plan to use this agency as a bully pulpit."  One of her targets surfaced when she learned that two motion pictures, "Lassie" and "Richie Rich," included scenes of kids riding all terrain vehicles in an unsafe manner.  The commission's general counsel then stated the CPSC was considering claiming movies as consumer products to be regulated under its jurisdiction.

Clinton's appointee completed her tenure with characteristic liberal panache.  She sought a mandatory recall of 7.5 million air guns from an American icon, Daisy.  Certain models, it was alleged, were safety hazards, in part because of a tendency for BBs to lodge in the rifles' mechanisms without a shooter's awareness.  According to the CPSC, in the previous three decades three accidental deaths had resulted from the supposed design flaw.

A commissioner who opposed suing Daisy pointed out that, even with lodged BBs, a rifle still wouldn't discharge unless the shooter pulled the bolt handle to the rear, pushed the bolt handle forward, pumped the gun up to the desired power level, disengaged the safety if it had been engaged, and then pulled the trigger.  She also noted how the three accidental deaths attributed to Daisy BB guns compared to the 250 annual deaths associated with the use of bicycles by children under 15 years old.

Ultimately there was a settlement rather than a recall.  Still, the CPSC continues its vital mission that it could do even better if it only had more tax dollars.  In 2004, the CPSC proudly proclaimed a voluntary recall of Kmart's Martha Stewart Everyday Safety Matches.  The recall notice stated the hazard succinctly enough:  These matches may ignite upon impact, posing a fire hazard to consumers.  Kmart, the agency admitted, had not received any reports of incidents.  The recall was being "being conducted to prevent the possibility of injuries."

Later that year, the commission once again forcefully thwarted untold accidents with a press release containing startling new information:  "Most of the deaths and injuries from heaters and fireplaces happen in the winter months," said CPSC Chairman Hal Stratton.

Quite clearly, the government cannot guarantee the safety of millions, perhaps billions, of individual products ranging from power tools to toys, cribs to household chemicals, bicycle helmets to water heaters.  Even if the CPSC had as many employees as Hillary Clinton does Chinese campaign contributors, it would be impossible.  Tossing a few million more at the CPSC will accomplish little if anything.  And it might lull citizens into a false sense of security, believing that the products they use are safe when the truth may be far different.

The seductive promise of the nanny state never loses its allure for some people.  Always place your trust – and your money – in the government.  That's the sort of creative, original, innovative, out of the box idea that Dick Durbin offers. ESR

This Michael Bates column appeared in the November 29, 2007 Reporter Newspapers.

 

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