Jeff Gelles: Learning about risky products | Philadelphia Inquirer | 10/30/2011

How well are the searchable public database and card-registration systems working?

Jeff Gelles, Inquirer Business Columnist


 Troy the Activity Truck is being recalled because of a choking hazard. Two-thirds of consumers aren´t aware of the registration-card mandate.
Consumer Product Safety Commission
Troy the Activity Truck is being recalled because of a choking hazard. Two-thirds of consumers aren’t aware of the registration-card mandate.

A quick Sunday quiz:

1. Where do you go to report an injury or a near-miss with a consumer product?

2. How do you learn whether others have identified risks you might want to know about – perhaps before you buy a toy or a space heater?

3. How do you make sure you’ll be informed of a safety-related recall if you buy, say, a baby’s crib, a toddler’s car seat, or a laptop computer?

The answer to the first two questions is the same –, which went online in March to take and share reports from consumers. Since April, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has been posting them in a searchable public database that last week contained more than 3,700 incident reports.

Question 3 is a bit of a trick. You’re as much on your own as ever if you buy a laptop and it’s recalled for a flaw such as an overheating battery – as Sony did last year after 30 reports that Vaio laptops had gotten hot enough to deform keyboards or casings. You can watch for news or visit Otherwise, you may learn about a recall only when you call to complain that your lap is getting really hot.

But since last year, the same 2008 law that mandated the CPSC’s new database has also required a new system meant to ensure that parents and others who buy “durable infant and toddler products” – items like cribs, car seats, strollers, and bassinets – learn about recalls before they cause injuries or deaths.

It works like this: If you buy a durable infant or toddler product, it’s supposed to include a card that enables you to register directly with the manufacturer – by mail or online – so the company will know how to reach you. Required in the midst of public furor over products that put kids at needless risk, it’s a special level of protection for products that should be especially trustworthy.


‘Company Doe’

How well are the new systems working? Consumer advocates give them good marks, although some manufacturers continue to push back against the public database – including an anonymous business that recently filed a “Company Doe” lawsuit against the CPSC in a Maryland court.

The company said it would suffer irreparable harm if it and its product were identified in an incident report submitted to the CPSC that said a child had been hurt. Even proceeding in open court would harm the company, it said, which is why it asked that the entire record be sealed.

For obvious reasons, CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson says he can’t discuss the case, except to say that the agency plans “to pursue a court motion to have this case unsealed.”

Wolfson says that from the agency’s standpoint, the database is working as designed. “It allows you to see what people in your community, or people around the country, have experienced.”

A report this month from the Government Accountability Office suggested one way the database still needs tweaking: making sure products are sufficiently identified in incident reports. A recent amendment to the 2008 law requires the CPSC to obtain a model number, serial number, or photograph of the product; before the amendment, the CPSC had asked for model or serial numbers, but the information was optional, the GAO said.

What about when a company contends that a report contains “materially inaccurate information,” as the GAO said occurred 160 times in the database’s first months? The GAO said, “Most were resolved and published within 10 business days” – the time frame set for initial review.


Public awareness lags

Recent reports by consumer groups highlight both the value of the database and the limits of the registration system, which also draws some industry criticism.

“Our experience with car-seat registrations is that, after a few years, the data became ineffective for consumer outreach, since people in this age range move as family size expands,” Michael Dwyer, executive director of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, said via e-mail.

Of course, one problem with registration cards – even when companies offer an online alternative, as this law requires – is of industry’s own making.

Long before the Internet became a primary means of collecting customer data, “warranty registration” cards were used as a subterfuge. Consumers were asked for their income, their hobbies, other products they had bought – information unrelated to the purchase they were registering. Many trained themselves to ignore the cards entirely.

The CPSC and consumer advocates have hoped to combat that with consumer education. But a recent survey of 1,000 adults conducted for the Consumer Federation of America showed mixed results, says Rachel Weintraub, the group’s director of product safety.

Two-thirds of all consumers – and more than 60 percent of those with children under 12 – weren’t aware of the registration-card requirement, Weintraub says.

Another study looked at the initial months of the database and showed once again why the system needed – and may still need – fixing.

The report from Chicago’s Kids in Danger examined more than 400 reports that involved children’s products among 2,432 incident reports posted at before Aug. 4 and found reports of seven product-related deaths that hadn’t been previously disclosed, says Kids in Danger executive director Nancy Cowles.

Most alarming, she says, was that one in seven of the 400 reports involved a product that had previously been recalled, but was still in use. Among them: a May 2010 death in a Graco Quattro stroller finally recalled last year because of a design, changed in 2008, that allowed a toddler’s body to slip through but could entrap his head. At least six children have died in similar models since 2003, she says.

The database, Cowles says, “is being used exactly as intended.”

And, just as expected, it’s shedding new light on real risks.