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Published: Thursday, 10/11/2007

Failure to protect

THE folks at the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission must live in a very different world from the rest of us.

Last month, acting chairman Nancy Nord said her agency moves swiftly and effectively to remove hazardous products from the market. So now she needs to explain how a dangerous tile sealer stayed on store shelves for more than a year after it was recalled and is blamed for causing two deaths and making dozens of people seriously ill.

Ms. Nord's testimony to a House panel that the agency's "recall process works very well" was laughable. In mid-2005, a do-it-yourself grout sealer called Stand'n Seal was recalled. However, it stayed on the market, and sent a number of people to hospital intensive care units. Then, a replacement product sold at Home Depot was discovered to contain the same chemical.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, (D., Ill.) called it about right: "Let's face it - our consumer product safety system is busted and in need of major reform."

To label the agency dysfunctional is being way too generous. Numerous risky products have slipped through our borders. Domestic goods that have also proven harmful to Americans' lives have been approved by the commission with nary a disapproving glance. The twin scandals over the lead-painted toys made in China and tainted animal foods alone would be enough to prove a serious system failure.

The agency has no time to thoroughly investigate complaints because it is swamped with reports of injuries and hazards. Its outdated laboratories and limited testing abilities force it to rely on the product makers and sellers to tell the truth.

That didn't work in the case of Stand'n Seal. Roanoke Companies Group Inc., as BRTT was formerly known, reissued cans of the spray to Home Depot stores with the same harmful chemical. It merely added a warning that consumers should use it in a ventilated setting.

If this reads like a report from a Third World nation, where corrupt companies have carte blanche to take advantage of unsuspecting citizens, there's a reason. As one person after another got sick from the spray, Roanoke's chief executive, Richard Tripodi, told a staff member not to tell alarmed customers that there were others just like them. After all, they couldn't risk hurting sales.

What the Consumer Product Safety Commission needs is what it should have had all along: Its own laboratory and the staff to investigate complaints and products.

Americans want to stay safe, even if that is not always possible. But something is stunningly wrong with the federal regulatory process when a product deemed dangerous is still sold after a recall. In this case, the agency first blamed the grout sealer's suppliers before finally admitting that it failed to quickly follow through on its duty.

The product eventually was taken off the shelves at Home Depot, which is happy to give customers who bought a recalled can a refund. But consumers deserve safe products, not refunds, and it's the job of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ensure that for all of us.



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