The year 2007 became known as "the year of the recall" when the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued warnings on 473 products, the highest annual number in a decade.
Many of the voluntary recalls involved imported goods, including children's toys and jewelry that contained toxic lead-based paint. The public outcry led to passage the next year of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which put in place tougher penalties and requirements for an array of products.
Inez Tenenbaum, who was sworn in to lead the commission last year, has implemented even more safeguards. One new program requires makers of durable infant or toddler products to include registration cards for consumers so that manufacturers can quickly contact them about recalls.
Tenenbaum, a former state superintendent of schools in South Carolina, recently visited the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to discuss injury prevention and product regulation. She talked with The Baltimore Sun about international cooperation on safety standards, the use of social media to reach the public and the perils of "recall fatigue."
QUESTION: What's the biggest challenge in ensuring product safety today?
ANSWER: To make people aware of the dangers in homes, in cribs, with swimming. We have so many instances every year when children drown in pools and spas.
We're trying to educate people about consumer products, about safe sleep, pool and spas, furniture tipover. But that's one of the largest challenges we have is just making people aware. Education and awareness — it doesn't stop with just the consumers.
We're trying to educate foreign governments on how to require safety in products, and also we're re-educating foreign manufacturers and people who create products that are put into the supply chain.
So I think education and awareness are our biggest challenges.
Q: How does what's happening globally impact product safety here in the United States?
A: When the Consumer Product Safety Commission was founded in 1972, probably most of the consumer products were manufactured domestically, and the United States has had a long history of regulation of products. In fact, many of our standards are superior to any other country in the world.
What we are wanting to do is create a new office of education for global outreach and a small-business ombudsman. That new office will work with universities, with public-private partnerships, with other federal and state agencies so we can create a network of other people who can help us educate not only foreign manufacturers but foreign safety agencies as well.
When I go into a foreign country, many times they are very willing to increase their standards, but they don't know how to get there. So I have found, being a former educator, that education is the key and partnerships are the key as well as working together across international lines.
Health Canada, the EU [European Union] and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission all teamed up to issue a joint letter on window coverings saying that we wanted the window covering manufacturers to remove the strangulation hazards. That was huge.
And it spoke volumes to the manufacturers.
Q: How do you respond to some critics of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act who say the law puts heavy testing burdens on manufacturers, especially smaller producers?
A: We have to have high standards to protect the consumer. So regardless if you're a large business or a small business, we can't let you put lead in children's products, or cadmium. Or overlook flammability laws or use other toxic chemicals. We look at what the danger is.
We think if we had a small-business ombudsman who was out there regularly educating small businesses, we could help them prevent problems in terms of compliance.
Large corporations have a whole office full of lawyers and engineers and chemists and toxicologists. Small businesses do not. And we don't want to put anyone out of business. We want to help them learn how to comply and sell safe products.
Q: How do you combat "recall fatigue" among families and caregivers who may feel bombarded by information about potential dangers?
A: That's why we're using social media, because we want to not just let it be a one-day news story where people are saying, "Well gosh, they're recalling more cribs?"
We use social media so that people, when they purchase a crib, can look at Twitter and Flickr. And we're going to have Facebook.
We also have a new app. And so if you're at a resale store, or if you're at a new store, you can pull up that app and find out information about that particular product. We want it to be something that's a research tool so that we're not just constantly bombarding people, although it's very helpful with traditional media to have those high-profile stories.
Q: How do you feel about the idea that some products are recalled unnecessarily and that some injuries are a natural part of growing up? What's the threshold to determine whether all products should be removed or repaired?
A: That's why we use common sense and we use risk analysis and we use really strong data before we make a determination.
I grew up in a rural community. I swam in creeks that had snakes, you know. The first group there had to throw rocks in to scare the snakes off. I'm used to a certain amount of risk — we rode horses; we rode bicycles down dirt roads.
There's a certain amount of risk in every recreational activity, or risk in the home. But if you teach people to use common sense and good judgment, then you can avoid that.
The United States is a country that believes in safety and education and consumer awareness, and I'm glad we live in a country like ours.
You go into some countries and you see a whole family on one scooter. Parents are sitting on the seat, they'll have a child tied on the back they'll have three little children here and the father's got the handlebars. That's not safe.
We try to help people and try to keep our lives safer in this country.
Q: What more can be done to improve the effectiveness of recalls?
A: We use traditional media. We also have neighborhood networks where we have the [CPSC] Neighborhood Safety Network. What we do is put the word out to over 4,000 members of our networks.
And we're looking to expand our relationships and our partnerships.
That's why we're here at Johns Hopkins. We feel like we need to increase those partnerships with other federal and state agencies as well as higher education.
We're trying as much as possible to educate and inform the public so that we can avoid tragedy.
See more business leaders interviewed by The Baltimore Sun