Why the CPSC can’t do enough to protect consumers from dangerous products

Of the 23 deaths reported in connection with products recalled in 2021, 19 actually occurred in previous years. It can take months or years for the public to be warned about dangerous products because federal laws favor corporations, not consumers.

Hannah Rhodes

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) plays a vital role in protecting consumers from unsafe products. Often overlooked, this government agency determines what products pose an unreasonable risk of injury and develops safety standards in accordance with its research on products. Annually, deaths, injuries and property damage from consumer products cost Americans more than $1 trillion. 

But 2021 reminds us the system is broken. Federal laws favor corporations, not consumers, and it can take months or years for the public to be warned about dangerous products.

The CPSC is a small agency with a big task to uphold. One of the CPSC’s methods for protecting consumers is product recalls.

From children’s products to ATVs to fitness equipment, there were 219 recalls from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2021. During each of the previous five years, there were more recalls, ranging from 241 to 330 per year, according to Saferproducts.gov. The 219 recalls last year involved more than 42 million units of products – twice as much compared with 2020, when about 20 million units of products were recalled.

While the number of recalls decreased from 2020 to 2021, this can be explained by the types of products recalled. For example, there were more essential oil recalls in 2020 than in 2021. 

Yet, the CPSC could do more to protect consumers. Before recalls are announced, what happens behind the scenes with the commission and recalling companies is unknown to the public. Even when a serious injury or death is reported, the CPSC cannot move forward in notifying the public without a series of hurdles to jump through if they do not have the permission of the recalling company. This recall process can take weeks, months or years.

With the CPSC’s hands tied behind its back, the commission still made significant progress last year with high-profile recalls, ranging from high-powered magnets to newborn loungers.  

A review of product recalls

Incidents, injuries and deaths

Using the data from the CPSC, we found that there were more than 8,000 incidents reported in 2021, with more than 6,000 incidents involving an injury or illness associated with a product. There were 23 deaths reported in connection with the products recalled. 

For incidents, injuries and deaths reported, it’s important to note that they were associated with a recall in 2021. They could have occurred in a different year. The majority of deaths reported in 2021 occurred in previous years – one death occurred as far back as 2011. This raises the question: how can a product recall occur years or even a decade after the first death was reported? 

Safety hazards 

When looking at all recalled products and their associated hazards, we found that the most common reasons for recalls in 2021 were:

1. Product could cause injury (26.5 percent). 

2. Risk of fire (25.6 percent).

3. Product could cause burns (15.1 percent), which could be fire or chemical related.

Product categories 

When analyzing the types of products recalled in 2021, children’s products were the highest category, with more than 40 recalls. That includes 15 recalls for children’s clothing. 

Other categories with the most recalls:

  • Furniture and related items, including drawers, bunk beds and rugs: 32 recalls.
  • Off-road vehicles, utility vehicles, ATVs, tractors:  28 recalls. 

Others with at least 10 recalls:

  • Appliances.
  • Sports and recreation. 
  • Bicycles and related accessories. 
  • Electronics. 

Notable recalls 

One of 2021’s highest profile recalls involved Peloton’s Tread+ treadmill. In April 2021, the CPSC took the unusual action of issuing an urgent public warning about the Peloton Tread+ treadmill, after commissioners learned of one child’s death and 39 incidents. The next month, the CPSC announced the recall of the Tread+ treadmill, in conjunction with Peloton. The CPSC cited the one child death and 70 incidents, a significant increase compared with the initial reports.

Urgent safety warnings have been an underused communication tool in the past. The CPSC typically works with recalling companies in a voluntary fashion, rather than making statements that alert the public about a product the commission considers to be dangerous, because of restrictions it operates under.  

In August 2021, the CPSC announced a recall of about 10 million Zen and Neoball magnets. At the time of the recall, the CPSC reported that two children had to have emergency surgery after swallowing Zen Magnets. The CPSC and Zen Magnets, LLC had a long battle over high-powered magnets being available for sale. The CPSC passed a magnet rule in 2014 regulating the sale of high-powered magnets, which was later reversed in 2016 after Zen Magnets sued the CPSC. 

Another large recall followed a month later, in September 2021, with more than 3 million Boppy Original Newborn Loungers, Boppy Preferred Newborn Loungers and Pottery Barn Kids Boppy Newborn Loungers being taken off the market. The CPSC tallied eight reports of infant deaths associated with the Boppy Company Newborn Lounger. Almost a year before, Consumer Reports (CR) had uncovered at least 28 infant deaths from 2012 to 2018 related to nursing pillows and loungers. Some were connected to products from the Boppy Company. 

In November 2021, Walmart recalled about 3,900 of its Better Homes and Gardens Essential Oil Infused Aromatherapy Room Spray with Gemstones after finding the oils contained a bacteria called Burkholderia pseudomallei. The bacteria could cause melioidosis, an illness that can be fatal. Four cases of melioidosis associated with the room sprays or one of its ingredients were investigated. Two of the cases were fatalities, including one child. 

Why are the CPSC’s hands tied? 

The CPSC works under the Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA), the umbrella act that dictates what the commission can and can’t do. In the CPSA, Section 6(b) allows manufacturers to object to what the CPSC releases to the public if it is company-related. 

In layman’s terms, if a company doesn’t want its name made public in connection with an unsafe product, there can be significant delays in information being relayed to the public. If the CPSC wants to move forward and disclose information to the public, the commission must notify the company and wait five days. That gives the company time to file a lawsuit to block the disclosure. 

To avoid lawsuits, the CPSC sometimes issues generic warnings that can be difficult for consumers to understand. After all, if the CPSC releases a general warning about a type of product, the next rational question would be: which brands are unsafe? 

In October 2020, the CPSC released a generic warning about nursing pillows and loungers. The commission said, “CPSC has identified deaths possibly associated with pillow-like products and continues to analyze incident data with the goal of determining the risks with these products and providing more clarity to the public on any risks associated with these products.” Nearly a year passed before about 3.3 million Boppy Original Newborn Loungers, Boppy Preferred Newborn Loungers and Pottery Barn Kids Boppy Newborn Loungers were recalled in September 2021. The CPSC said eight reports of infant deaths were associated with the Boppy Company Newborn Lounger. 

Sunshine in Product Safety Act

The Sunshine in Product Safety Act would remove Section 6(b), allowing for more transparency between the agency and the consumers that it strives to protect. The bill was introduced shortly after the urgent warning about the Peloton Tread+ treadmill was released by the CPSC. 

Sponsor Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said in a statement, “CPSC must be able to move swiftly to warn Americans when products like the Peloton Tread+ and the Fisher-Price Rock ’n Play Sleeper pose a danger to them and their families. Yet current regulatory constraints allow companies to call the shots on how and when to notify the public about their hazardous products, keeping important safety information from the public.”

Consumers should be served better by the agency that was created to protect them, including being informed of unsafe products transparently and quickly. If a death is connected to a dangerous product, the public should be made aware before weeks, months or even years pass with other Americans having the same exact product in their home. 

Recall Effectiveness

More often than not, product recalls don’t get unsafe products out of Americans’ homes; they just stop new sales. In 2017, the CPSC found that recalled products with a retail price of $19 or less were only corrected or fixed about 4 percent of the time. Recalled products with the retail price of $10,000 or more were corrected about 32 percent of the time. 

A “corrected” recall could mean the product was returned to the recalling company and a consumer received a refund. It could also mean that the product was repaired or replaced by the recalling company.

Companies should spend the same amount of money that they used to promote the product to promote a product recall. Recalling companies have many methods to do so, including their social media pages, using influencers who promoted their products to market the recall and targeted advertisements.

Tips for consumers

Consumers can learn more about recalled products at Saferproducts.gov by searching for recalled products, looking through product incident reports and reporting their own bad experiences. 

Consumers can also sign up for safety notifications. There are different options for notifications, including safety alerts for all recalled products or safety alerts just related to children’s products or products used for sports and recreation. 

All information about recalled products in 2021 was provided on https://www.cpsc.gov/Recalls. Some recalled products had incomplete information. 

 

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Hannah Rhodes

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