Safer Children's Products with Standards

Rachel Weintraub

An Interview with Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America

Working at the intersection of advocacy, standards and legislation, Rachel Weintraub talks about improving the safety of children's products.

How are standards and the standardization process important tools in consumer advocacy?

If you're a consumer advocate working on product safety, voluntary standards are a very important part of your work, and ASTM in particular has been an integral part of that standard setting.

The voluntary standards process is a complicated one. It's one that works best with active involvement from consumer groups and the federal government in a process that is clear and unambiguous so that participants know what to expect and how to effectively participate. The goals have to be an effective resolution of hazards and truly addressing key hazards in a timely way that allows for dialogue from key stakeholders but also minimizes the consequences of potential safety problems.

A good example is the ASTM F963 standard for toy safety, and magnets in particular. When that issue emerged - of children swallowing magnets - the toy standards committee acted quickly and effectively. The standard became a model for dealing with magnets. If there are magnets in children's toys, they have to be embedded and not get out of the product. Here the ASTM process proved to provide a nimble framework.

An example from the 1990s involved the standard for baby walkers. There had been huge numbers of head injuries, and often the walkers fell down basement steps so the babies' falls were onto cement. The changes to the standard added to a huge decline in these incidents caused by baby walkers tumbling down steps. The standard addressed the hazard by making the product wider than doorways and having a braking mechanism.

How should voluntary standards organizations and the federal government work together on behalf of better consumer products?

I think it should be a very active collaboration. It's very important for the federal government to be engaged in the voluntary standards process. The government has knowledge and expertise and access to information that no one else has. That info is very important to fully understand specific problems with products. And the government has vast expertise in different disciplines, whether human factors, epidemiology, toxicology or engineering; it has much to add to the voluntary standards process. I also think that if CPSC should be able to vote, which it currently does not do, that would better enhance the process.

ASTM brings many important things to the table: an ability to bring together stakeholders from different disciplines and from within a category of products. Different manufacturers, for example, are comfortable working in ASTM standards processes and are familiar with the process.

Section 104 of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act has been an incredibly effective model for the voluntary standards community and the federal government in using resources effectively, having a timeline that is complied with and moving on standard after standard in an effective way. It has become a partnership between ASTM and CPSC because ASTM is the entity that the juvenile product standards go through.

There's still a lot of work to do, such as having more consumers represented. The process is still opaque for some, and its technicalities can be a barrier to participation. I also wish the process, in some circumstances, would be shorter and more dynamic.

What advice would you give to consumers with concerns about products available in the marketplace?

Consumers should check, which is CPSC's consumer incident database, to see if others have had concerns. Check to see if there have been recalls; that information would be available there as well. If those concerns are based on a safety problem, report the problem to CPSC and the manufacturer. For infant and toddler products especially - and this is not clear to most consumers - check whether it meets the most recent version of the ASTM standard. It's a challenge. Most consumers really don't know what ASTM is.

We always urge consumers to fill out registration cards for specific products, especially children's products where the information can't be shared for any other purpose than safety. Register electronic products too, so that a company can communicate with you in case there's some type of safety problem.

I also think - for children's products - that consumers need to think about how children play with and interact with a product, and whether there are older and younger siblings in the family. If there are, maybe you shouldn't get a product with many small parts, knowing that it could pose a hazard unless the small parts wouldn't be accessible.

What are some of CFA's biggest successes in advancing consumer safety?

Passage of the CPSIA in 2008 was something that CFA and other consumer groups worked very hard on at many stages of the process. It was a critical success.

CFA led a coalition of consumer groups and communicated with all the stakeholders about important elements of CPSIA. It really is the most significant legislation impacting CPSC since its creation in the 1970s. CPSIA did some very significant things: It created, and Section 104 created a mechanism for voluntary standards for infant and toddler products to become mandatory with CPSC. The law also addresses lead limits and third party testing. For products subject to mandatory testing, they must go through third party testing to be sure that they actually meet those standards.

If we feel that the evidence shows a voluntary standard hasn't addressed a hazard, we file petitions with CPSC urging them to promulgate mandatory standards. Anyone who would like to effect change and have the CPSC focus on particular issues can file - manufacturers, consumer advocates, industry groups. We've been effective at getting the agency to focus on issues in ways that they wouldn't have.

One of the mandatory standards that has had the most impact, especially considering previous inaction, is the crib standard. It truly addresses real-world use. Cribs are one of the few places designed for you to leave your baby unattended. It was a huge breach of trust that some cribs were causing harm. We were seeing so many incidents with millions of products recalled. CPSIA created a mechanism for that standard to be made much stronger, and it really addressed the problems in the marketplace.

We still have a lot more work to do on many different product categories, such as window coverings and the hazard of cord strangulation for children. The Window Covering Manufacturers Association has promulgated voluntary standards through the American National Standards Institute for many years, but unfortunately it hasn't adequately addressed the strangulation hazard. We filed a petition in 2013 and CPSC is moving forward on it.

How does your work on civil justice relate to consumer product safety?

In terms of consumer advocacy, the idea that a consumer can obtain redress in some way if they're harmed from a product is important. A standard can try and design out the hazard, but if that fails, consumers can obtain redress if they're harmed.

There are also product safety-related issues such as the issue of secret settlements, which is a civil justice issue.

In many product safety cases, individuals settle with a company and sign a secrecy agreement so they're not allowed to talk about it. That means there could be critical information impacting public health and safety that never gets out to the public or regulators. It's a barrier to transparency, and transparency leads to improvements in safety, especially when there are incidents we don't know about.

Rachel Weintraub is the legislative director and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America, Washington, D.C., where her primary focus is on product safety issues. She represents CFA on behalf of consumers for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the U.S. Congress, state legislatures and in voluntary standards organizations. A member at large on the executive subcommittee of ASTM Committee F15 on Consumer Products, Weintraub works on a number of F15 groups and has been an ASTM member since 2002.
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