The federal safety inspectors who protect kids from dangerous and deadly toys were not standing guard for nearly six months while this year’s holiday gifts entered the U.S. by the shipload.
Princess palaces and playhouses, water guns and tricycles landed on store shelves and front doorsteps without the usual security checks for lead, chemicals or choking hazards.
Government leaders had secretly sent home the nation’s toy police.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission pulled its inspectors from ports around the country in mid-March because of the threat of COVID-19. Leaders of the federal agency made the decision in private, without a warning to consumers or full disclosure to Congress, then continued the shutdown at the ports and a government testing laboratory until September, USA TODAY has found. That included spring and summer months that were their inspectors’ busiest last year.
The CPSC watchdogs are supposed to intercept bad toys and other household products before they reach the market. “Anything that could potentially harm consumers, my job is to stop it here,” one compliance investigator says in a video posted on the agency’s website.
Instead, three years of internal agency enforcement records and communications obtained by USA TODAY reveal an extraordinary lapse in safety surveillance during the pandemic – one hidden from public view.
The CPSC did not flag a single toy at the ports between June and July for poisonous lead levels, one of the most frequent violations, internal records show. In August, port inspectors reported their total monthly activity amounted to 47 screenings for all hazards – less than 2% of a typical month before the pandemic hit.
As of this month, the records show inspectors still were not working in five of the 18 ports they normally patrol, including major commerce hubs in Chicago, New York and Savannah, Georgia.
As companies funneled more goods into the country’s busiest ports every week, the CPSC failed to disclose how few violations it was catching. After January, it stopped posting that information online, a list updated this week only after requests from USA TODAY.
Records and internal documents show that even after returning to the ports and reopening its testing laboratory, the CPSC still has identified fewer safety violations than usual for serious threats. Violations that saw a dramatic drop-off this September compared to last include toys with small parts, which can choke toddlers, and children’s products with hazardous levels of chemical phthalates.
CPSC inspectors performed half the safety screenings this fiscal year compared to last
Shoppers have no way to differentiate good products from any bad items that slipped in. Experts fear it could take years to discover the dangers allowed into American homes.
Big-name national retailers and distribution companies have imported tens of thousands of shipments during the pandemic. The retail industry says it does not rely on CPSC to keep consumers safe. Importers and manufacturers are required to monitor their own products and inform the government when they find hazards.
In an interview with USA TODAY, the CPSC’s acting chairman, Robert Adler, said broadcasting its port playbook would have invited companies to exploit the system. The agency’s commissioners had a chance to weigh in on the decision that he said prioritized keeping employees healthy.
Adler noted that the small health and safety agency asked for help from customs and border patrol agents who remained at the ports, but did not offer specifics.
“We stopped a fair amount of stuff,” he said. “We didn’t stop all of it, but we never stopped all of it.”
Source: USA Today