Though China pledged Tuesday to resolve the use of lead paint in toys it manufactures for the United States, today senators took toy makers and safety commissioners to task as to why those imports weren't subject to more stringent tests on American shores.
Anything more than trace levels of lead in toys, they pointed out, has been illegal in the United States for nearly 30 years. But over the course of that time, the watchdog agency that inspects products for safety has been beset by budget cuts: Nearly 1,000 inspectors worked for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in 1980; slightly more than 400 work there now, though foreign commerce has boomed.
In the wake of recent product recalls -- everything from toys to dog food to toothpaste, all imports from China -- the CPSC commissioners testified today that new legislation could better help them do their jobs.
For his part, the Mattel CEO Robert Eckert apologized to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for the lead paint in toys that led to three enormous toy recalls this summer.
"I know this subcommittee and the American people want to know how lead got onto our products and what steps we're taking to ensure that this doesn't happen again. Simply put, our systems were circumvented and our standards were violated," Eckert said before the Senate panel.
In one particularly heated exchange, Subcommittee Chair Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and CPSC Acting Chair Nancy Nord went head to head.
Nord argued that the state of Chinese internal standards were "up to the Chinese."
Durbin shot back, "If this is a memorandum of understanding an agreement with the Chinese, what they do internally is not up to the Chinese if it comes to the United States. That's what this is about. I'm asking you if there's a new lead standard agreed to in this agreement with China for lead or lead paint. I've said three times. Is there or isn't there?"
Nord contended that "the Chinese have agreed to eliminate any lead paint used in toys exported to the United States."
"Is this a new standard?" Durbin questioned.
Nord reiterated, "Sir, again, you will have to ask the Chinese what the state of the Chinese law is."
After a back and forth with Durbin over recent recalls, Nord explained, "There is no rule in place, that's what I'm trying to tell you. We deal with this. We've got an enforcement that we're enforcing. I would like to have a rule because that is a much stronger regulatory tool. Until we get a rule in place we will enforce our enforcement policy."
Durbin retorted: "What you've just told me is no conciliation to the families across America that you are somehow caught up in a rule-making process when you know that one out of five pieces of children's jewelry has dangerous lead content. We expect, Americans expect our government to act to protect families and children."
He continued, "If that is the case, then I think either the law or the commission need to change."
It's a law Durbin and other Democrats are eager to change. At today's hearing, the senators displayed pictures of the lone, cluttered lab where the single CPSC official in charge of testing toys toils away.
They've introduced legislation to revamp the CPSC, hire more inspectors, improve testing facilities and give the agency more legislative authority for recalls and sanctions against specific companies.