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CONSUMER AFFAIRS / DENISE GELLENE

Child Issues High for Product Safety Chief

March 25, 1994|DENISE GELLENE

Earlier this week we talked with Ann Brown, the new chairwoman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

She came to the interview with a package of 12 jumbo crayons imported from China by Concord Enterprises of Los Angeles--the first product recalled under her tenure. Although labeled "non-toxic," the yellow and red crayons contain hazardous amounts of lead, Brown said. The crayons may be returned to stores for refunds.

Brown said the commission is testing 25 other crayon brands imported from China. Results are expected within a few weeks, and recalls will follow if lead is found.

Before joining the commission March 10, Brown was vice president of the Consumer Federation of America and chairwoman of Public Voice, an nutrition advocacy group.

We asked Brown to discuss her goals for the agency, which has a reputation among consumer groups for sluggishness.

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Q Consumer organizations say commission inaction in recent years has forced Congress and state governments to legislate remedies. Congress is considering a toy-labeling bill identical to a proposal the commission rejected last year against the recommendation of its own staff. In California, the Legislature is weighing a ban on sales of substandard baby cribs, because the commission hasn't done so. What's your response?

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A The consumer groups are absolutely correct. The commission has a terrific staff, but it has not been listened to.

One of the things I've done since getting to the commission is try to invigorate the staff. I've been there 10 days, and I've had two brown-bag lunches with the (department) directors. I've opened the elevators. The staff had to use a special key card to open the elevators, and they weren't allowed to come in nights and on weekends. Imagine! Someone wants to work on a weekend and they sat on that.

I said: 'Bring me your ideas. Take risks.' We've got all sorts of ideas.

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Q For example?

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A Swimming pool (drownings) are a problem in California, Arizona and South Florida. Of course, what we need are barriers separating the house and the pool . . . fences are not enough. There's something we did with playgrounds. We put out a booklet--we didn't make it a rule--that gave requirements for playgrounds. Even though it's not mandatory it has become the standard for home playgrounds. So, one of the staff said, 'Why can't we do the same thing for swimming pools?'

This is what you call back-door rule-making.

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Q This is not something you have the authority to mandate, is that correct?

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A We don't have the authority to mandate (barri ers). I think you have to push the envelope a little.

These (commission) pamphlets take on the force of law. They (contractors and equipment manufacturers) are concerned about product liability.

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Q What about products you can regulate? Various consumer organizations have been pushing for safety rules for baby walkers, cribs and 5-gallon, industrial buckets that are reused for household chores.

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A Buckets are a very serious problem for children between the ages of 8 and 14 months. Children are a little top-heavy at those ages, and the buckets are sturdy and don't tip over. A child can drown in three inches of water.

We are going to be taking action on buckets. Labeling is one thing we can do. We may have to have performance standards so buckets tip when a kid falls in. A kid drowns every week, so we have to work as speedily as possible.

(Regarding) baby walkers--that's a real puzzle. One time on a radio program I suggested that they be banned (because toddlers are hurt when walkers roll down stairs). The calls came in: 'Take away my husband but don't take my baby walker!' So I don't know. People are so dependent on them and love them so. It may be possible to redesign them so they are more like bouncers, or put them on a tether.

(As for substandard cribs), we have a couple of ideas on how to motivate consumers to turn in old cribs. We haven't met with manufacturers yet, but I think (working with them) is the way to go. One of my staff people is . . . sounding them out on the idea of being involved.

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Q What else is on your agenda?

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A Other issues are Venetian blind cords and strings on children's clothing. The statistics are showing there are (strangulation) deaths. We don't have hundreds. What we are seeing with Venetian blinds is more cords and more deaths. The numbers are creeping up, and I feel this is an important area.

The strings on children's garments are interesting because they've tried to approach those deaths by what you do about the cribs or the playground equipment so there aren't any gaps (where strings may get caught). But if you did something about the strings, then you wouldn't have to go to each individual place where (an accident) happens.

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Q In Los Angeles, with its large immigrant population, non-English-speaking consumers have been injured because they cannot read warning labels. Some consumer organizations would like to see bilingual labels.

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A I think labeling is sometimes overused to the extent that you say, 'We've labeled it, therefore we've taken care of (the problem).' But my instinct is that any time we do a label, it would have to be in Spanish and English. I think we have so many people who speak Spanish as their first language that we have to do that.

Q It seems that many if not all of your concerns--deal with children.

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A Absolutely. I have to be careful not to make them my whole priority. I'm a mother, a grandmother and a professional in children's safety. When I made my list of priorities--and you have to prioritize, I can't make the whole world safe--the children's things just stuck out.

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