Eighty percent of the toys sold in the United States are manufactured abroad, the vast majority in China. Because China has no effective regulatory structure, these imports are notoriously dangerous for children. The most prominent example is toys coated with lead paint, made that way because in China, lead paint is actually cheaper than the safe variety because the Chinese have increased the mining of lead ore by 50 percent since 2001. (Let’s not even imagine what Chinese manufacturers are selling to their own people). But it’s not just lead-laden toys. Independent investigations also discovered that Chinese manufacturers were using a chemical coating on tiny glue dots sold as part of a craft set for young kids that metabolized into the date rape drug gamma hydroxyl butyrate by kids who ate them. Some did, and ended up in the hospital. And just this Christmas, scientists found the toxic chemical cadmium in the coating of a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer charm bracelet, again, courtesy of Chinese manufacturers.
We shouldn’t have to rely on the good intentions of Chinese manufacturers to make sure our kids’ toys are safe. And in fact, sparing us from such leaps of faith is the responsibility of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which also has jurisdiction over 15,000 product categories and hundreds of millions of products sold annually, including everything from backyard barbecues to food processors to electric drills. In 1981, before President Reagan took office and did his best to smother health and safety agencies, the CPSC’s budget of $41 million supported 891 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees. Under President Obama’s FY2011 budget released yesterday, the agency will have 576 FTEs, at the shockingly modest cost of $118.6 million, a 0.3 percent increase over last year. That’s right, in FY 2011, 315 fewer employees at a cost of $118 million dollars, an amount so tiny by federal budget standards that it hardly makes a dent. In the intervening three decades, the U.S. population has grown from 229 million to 305 million – 76 million more consumers out there buying products whose safety is, unfortunately, not guaranteed.
The CPSC says it will use its infinitesimal Fiscal Year 2011 increase to hire 50 more employees, many of whom will be dispatched to U.S. ports. To understand how analogous this gambit is to filling a swimming pool with a teaspoon, consider that Chinese toy recalls are likely to prove only the tip of the iceberg of the import problem. The value of Chinese imports in the U.S. marketplace is estimated to be approximately $246 billion, about 40 percent of the value of total products that the nation imports. Consumer product imports from China surged to $246 billion from $62 billion between 1997 and 2007. Today, nearly 20 percent of consumer products for sale in America were made in China, compared with 5 percent in 1997.
In 2007, dubbed the “year of the recall” by consumer groups, the CPSC had 15 inspectors to police these hundreds of billions of dollars worth of imports annually. As just one example of the mismatch between agency resources and the task at hand, Los Angeles area ports process 15 million truck-size containers annually, but only a single CPSC inspector, working two or three days a week, was available to spot-check them. None of the 15 inspectors working nationwide had equipment capable of detecting lead in products. The only CPSC testing laboratory devoted to toys was in a cramped office in Washington, D.C. A single employee with outmoded equipment tested toys to see if they were shatter-proof by dropping them in a small space behind the office door.
Maybe the lab will improve—the CPSC says it will spend some of its 0.3 percent in increased funding on that overdue project. And maybe there will be a few more inspectors a week walking around loading docks in our major cities. But no one should think the agency will be able to make much of a dent in its already perilously hollow performance.