Killing the Consumer (a wingnut theory)

Ms. Inez Moore Tenenbaum
Chairman
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
4330 East West Highway
Bethesda, MD 20814
November 29, 2010

Dear Ms. Tenenbaum:

Have you been wondering if the U.S. government and the corporations it regulates have been conspiring to eliminate the American consumer  who can’t afford high quality goods?

Well, call me a wingnut but this possibility just plain smacked me in the face when I read last week that your agency (you know, the good old CPSC) was “investigating” lead contamination of some colorful decorated glasses imported from China.

You notice how I put “investigating” in “quotes”? That’s because it wasn’t really your investigation, was it? You were just following up on the work of the Associated Press, which used its own money to pay for a laboratory analysis of glasses – decorated with images from Warner Brothers movies and Coca-Cola designs – and found they exceeded federal limits for lead in children’s  drinking glasses by up to 1,000 times.

I did like the way you refused to accept that these Superman-Wonder Woman-Superheroes of Star Wars glasses were meant for adults only. At first I thought it sounded silly – I mean, duh, everyone knows kids like superhero products – but I figured it out. You have no set limit for lead in adult products. So despite the best efforts of our friendly business community to define these as adult products,  this decision enabled you to angle for a recall of the contaminated glasses. Good work there!

But can I just ask why you don’t have a safety limit for adults? Don’t we count too? The AP tests found that the images of the glasses contained 16-30.2 percent lead.  Is that somehow safe for adults when your limit for kids is .03 percent? Acknowledged that the lead paint safety standard is one of the toughest in the world. Acknowledged that the CPSC isn’t responsible for monitoring all the country’s lead risks or even setting all the standards. But shouldn’t we find some consensus on what’s safe for all? Did anyone tell you that the EPA’s  idea of the safe amount of lead in drinking water is, um, none: The maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG) is zero. This is the level determined to be safe by toxicological and biomedical considerations, independent of feasibility.

Just a thought. You probably already know that. But if so, why aren’t you setting tougher limits? And while I’m a big fan of investigative journalism, I still wonder why it’s AP doing the initial consumer protection work here. Shouldn’t the companies selling these products be as vigilant? More so, actually? Shouldn’t you?

Remember last month when it was testing by a Florida newspaper, The Tampa Tribune, that showed that reusable grocery bags were contained with lead? Or this past summer when McDonald’s recalled more than 12 million “Shrek 3″ glasses  contaminated with the toxic metal cadmium (and also a little lead). That only happened because consumer advocates ran some tests, contacted a U.S. Congresswoman, and she nudged you into an “investigation” of your own.  As the congressman, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) said at the time, “Our children’s health should not depend on the consciences of anonymous sources.”

Geez, call me a wingnut again, but I think she’s right. We should be able to depend – at least more than this – on the consciences of our government regulators and our business leaders. And – call me a dingbat too if you like – I also think we should damn well be able to learn from our mistakes.

I bring up the latter after reading through your list of lead-poisoned product recalls since mid-July 2001 when you started posting them on-lin). Do you realize that there are 289 recalls listed through September 29 of this year, that we’re talking more than 30 recalls every single year? Do you realize that I had to hand count them to get that number?

Just to summarize, the list shows that products include, yes, decorated glasses but also children’s jewelry, gloves, furniture, hockey sticks, educational kits, bicycle bells, cloth books, toys, boots, masks, balls, craft kits, shows, ice skates, construction play sets, beads, manicure kits, sunglasses, cribs, xylophones, bookends, cosmetic accessory bags, CD players, MP3 players, candle charms, magnets, key chains, pajamas, paint brushes, sleeping bags, storage bins, pens, fake teeth, locks, water bottles, Easter egg containers, puzzles, journals, calendars, memory test cards, sketchbooks, gardening tools, classroom math aids, blocks, train sets, board games, photo frames, play mats, lamps, coin banks, wagons, measuring charts, water globes, pencil pouches, pillows, racing helmets,  potty training seats, music boxes, Halloween pails, cake decorations, bookmarks… (and, okay, I’m a little tired of listing these now) and flashlights.

And when you get into the finer details, you’ll also notice that just like the superhero glasses and the grocery store bags, almost ALL of these lead-tainted products came from China. I know, I know, China isn’t the source of all contamination problems. We create plenty ourselves. But still we do have near ten years of data showing that cheap products imported from that country are more than likely to contain poisonous metals. Just two years ago, The New York Times won a Pulitzer prize for documenting such problems, especially in medicines. And what have we done about that? Well, apparently, we’re still just “investigating” and recalling and exposing the American consumer to potential lead poisoning on a monthly basis.

Why don’t we have tougher regulations? Why are American businesses not scrutinizing every such import for heavy contamination? Why aren’t there penalties invoked here? And why are our regulators and industries so willing to put the rest of us at risk? It could be that it’s just profitable but surely our captains of industry, our government agencies,  care more about the health of American citizens than insuring profitability.

So I’ve come up with a nice little conspiracy theory. You and your business partners are tired of low-income consumers. They can only afford dirt-cheap crap from China, their purchases don’t add up enough to float the balance sheets.

So, of course, you aren’t protecting them with tougher regulations. Of course, American corporations aren’t investing in safer products. Slowly but surely, one piece of jewelry, one pair of plastic boots at a time, you’re getting rid of everyone who doesn’t matter enough to be kept safe.  Sure it sounds crazy. But is it any crazier than importing poisoned goods for almost ten years without looking for alternatives or better safety systems?

I don’t think so. So who’s the wingnut now?

Yours sincerely,

Deborah Blum

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14 Responses to Killing the Consumer (a wingnut theory)

  1. Pingback: CPSIA – Wingnut or Dingbat, You Make the Call! :

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  3. Deborah Blum says:

    Well, I did originally play around with being a wingnut or dingbat in this “theory” – that part of it being completely tongue in cheek – but I recently updated the post and removed those asides as just making the “letter” too complicated. It’s nice to hear you defend the CPSC and I appreciate it because I worried that I was too hard on an agency that I actually like most of the time. It’s great that they have someone like you to stand up for them.

  4. Paul Yuen says:

    It’s a good day to see how a professor of journalism and a Pulitzer-prize winning science writer writes about “SCIENCE”, “THEORY” and “KILLING”.

  5. Deborah Blum says:

    Nothing seems to provoke more comment than good old-fashioned satire.

  6. Lori White says:

    Wow. For someone purported to be an expert in science and journalism, this letter shows a pretty piss-poor grasp of both. No wonder consumers in America are in a constant state of paranoia. I’m sorry… just how many consumers have been “killed off” (or even injured?) from these thousands of “poisoned” products over the last 10 years? Oh, that statistic seems to be missing… The fact that there is more cadmium in the serving of McDonald’s french fries (that you actually EAT) than would be released from the enamel of the promotional glass? Hmm. Strangely missing too. Any comparison of the potential danger between the pesticides on the produce you put into the grocery bags and the levels of lead in the inks on the outside of the bags? Nope, too inconvenient and would distract from the hysteria. Any indication of what fraction of our imports from China over the last 10 years are represented by those 300 recalls? Well, no, but it must be nearly all of them, since the obvious conlusion is that ALL products from China are “more than likely” to be contaminated with lead. (Gee, I thought the balance of trade was a little higher than that… my bad!)

    Well then, congratualtions on a great conspiracy theory and the regurgitation of selected statistics and out of context data. I’d offer you a nice tinfoil hat, but there’s bound to be a few lead molecules mixed into that aluminum, and it’s probably made in China.

  7. Deborah Blum says:

    Satire, Lori, satire. The only thing serious about this piece is the evidence that we need better regulation of toxic substances. That’s why I called it, um, a wing nut theory.

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  9. jeconnery says:

    I believe it was John Stewart who said something to the effect of: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me for almost a decade and I’m a f&$^ing idiot!”

  10. Deborah Blum says:

    Yes, that’s the perfect quote for this situation, Ed. Thanks for passing it on!

  11. in a small town says:

    The topic of lead in children’s toys and other items of their expected
    use patterns, tends to be limited to items marketed for child use; but
    not for all items in their environment and items children will be in
    close enough proximity of (or outright use directly) to be an important
    consideration when the toxic nature of metals and other chemicals in
    products are discussed, and effects of their reality in the human habitat.

    Items adults use in the home, also inhabited by children and pets, of a
    contaminated nature, are as hazardous for the kids without the labeling
    or testing; and kids will play with tools and other products considered
    non-hazardous, by previous American industrial standards of quality
    now lacking in so many cost-cutting globally produced profit-motivated
    inexpensive and environmentally unregulated source countries.

    Excuse my long commentary. I was looking to get inexpensive flashlights
    not labeled ‘for kids’ and found no testing or regulations exist for most of
    the items now being sold; from the practical standpoint of enforcement.

    And packaged small plastic or metal LED flashlights, ideal for kids, are
    not necessarily safe even to this day. At 10 in a package, under $1. each
    including those carbon-zinc chinese batteries, what kid won’t want one?

    ~in a small town…
    south of the arctic circle

  12. Deborah Blum says:

    You raise some really excellent points here – so glad you wrote. I do mean at some point to write about batteries, actually. Thanks for the reminder!

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