Senate toughens regs on toys made overseas

March 6, 2008 6:56:12 PM PST
Responding to record recalls of products that sickened children, the Senate passed legislation Thursday that would toughen inspections of toys and other playthings made outside the U.S. The bill calls for a public database of consumer complaints, bolsters the Consumer Products Safety Commission to help it certify the safety of overseas products, bans lead in children's goods and sets new standards for safe toys.

It won approval by a 79-13 vote after four days of debate. The Bush administration and other critics said the database unfairly could taint manufacturers. But President Bush stopped short of threatening a veto.

Both the Senate and House versions passed with veto-proof margins, increasing the chances a compromise would draw similar support.

"Even though (Bush) doesn't like it, I think he's going to have to take it," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters during a conference call.

Congress has much to do before Bush has the chance to make that decision.

"The hard work starts" now, said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., with negotiators from each chamber working to reconcile their differences. He managed the bill with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

The House's version, passed by a 407-0 vote in December, has many differences, including a lower cap for jury awards. Regarding the database, the House version proposes a study on how to create one.

The congressional debate was thick with emotion. The mothers of two boys sickened by toys tearfully urged Congress to speed the legislation to the president, saying many provisions would have helped her children and prevent others from similar dangers.

For Colton Burkhart's parents, it was a medallion from a gumball-type machine that cost just a quarter, but nearly took his life.

Colton, then 4, swallowed the trinket and almost died from the lead it contained. Four years and a battery of tests, surgeries and therapy later, the Redmond, Ore., boy still has elevated levels of lead in his body.

Colton's mother, Kara, visited the Senate this week to tell anyone who would listen about Colton's ordeal. But Colton fared better than another 4-year-old, Jarnell Graham of Minneapolis, who died from lead poisoning under similar circumstances.

It was their cases - and hundreds like them - that spurred the recalls last year of millions of Chinese-produced toys, from Barbie doll accessories to Thomas the Tank Engine. Congress, in turn, produced legislation that would overhaul the Consumer Products Safety Commission, responsible for ensuring that toys and other products pose no hazard.

Klobuchar and Pryor said the legislation was written in close consultation from some of the retailers who had to pull recalled products from store shelves.

"We believe that stronger federal quality assurance standards will play a critical role in achieving what we all are striving for: the safest possible products for our children," Toys "R" Us Inc. said in a statement after the Senate vote.

The Senate bill would nearly double the agency's budget and increase its staff to nearly 500 people by 2013.

The new database would collect information from people, hospitals and other sources about injuries, illnesses and deaths from consumer products.

The Senate bill would raise the civil penalty cap per violation from $8,000 to $250,000 and the limit for a related series of violations from $1.8 million to $20 million; the House version would raise the penalty limit to $10 million.

The final Senate bill included amendments, including one by Klobuchar that would prohibit agency staff from taking trips paid for by companies and industries they regulate.

Also included was an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would ban phthalates - chemicals in plastic that can cause health problems - in children's toys and products.

The administration issued a statement this week citing half-dozen provisions about which it had various levels of concern, but none serious enough to merit a veto.

The agency, according to the administration, should enforce safety standards, not attorneys general as the Senate version proposes. Also, new legal shields for whistleblowers "will cause a serious increase in the number of frivolous claims brought against employers," the statement said.

The White House said it was concerned about a requirement that toys be tested by independent and privately owned third parties.


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