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Congress Leads in Decreasing Lead Paint

In 2007 the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued more recalls for products with illegal levels of lead paint than it had for the three previous years combined. During the height of the Christmas shopping season Congress took a substantial step to decrease the amount of lead allowed in children’s products and to increase the CPSC’s budget to further enforce these laws. Though the Consumer Product Reform Act of 2007 has not yet become law the bill has strong bipartisan support and is likely to become law soon.

The budget increase for the CPSC seems to be needed. In 2007 there were over 70 product recalls because of lead paint; a search of the CPSC website shows there were 20 in 2006, 13 in 2005 and only 6 in 2004. There has already been one lead paint recall this year.

Current law allows for lead levels of 600 parts per million. The new law will set a goal for lead content in children’s toys of 100 parts per million within four years after the law’s passage. This new standard is only for children’s products, which are products designed for use by children 12 years of age and younger.

The National Institutes of Health National Toxicology Program has released a report citing dangers similar to lead paint. Plastic bottles made out of polycarbonate plastic contain the chemical bisphenol A. The report found that bisphenol A leaches out of the container and is absorbed by the food in the container. Bisphenol A was discovered in 1891, and it has been known to mimic the chemical effects of estrogen since the 1930s.

The report found that high levels of exposure may disrupt hormones and genes, and lead to a higher level of cancer for children exposed to it. Like the lead paint issue, the chemical is most harmful to children and is most often found in children’s products. The government said that bisphenol A is found in hard plastic beverage containers such as baby bottles, as well as from liners in cans containing food and infant formula.

Though the Consumer Product Safety Commission has had its authority and budget expanded that will not solve the plastic bottle problem. Because food is packaged in these bottles they do not fall under the CPSC but under another agency, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The technical term for these bottles is a “food contact substance”, which are regulated by the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety. Like our toys, most of these bottles are manufactured overseas.

Most toys sold in the US are imported and 80% of those come from China. Congress may now have to act to reduce the level of Bisphenol A in products as well. Thus, the new laws designed to make products safer in the US may be aimed not at domestic producers, but foreign manufacturers.

Critics of US trade policies have previously cited lax foreign laws as the reason for the decline in product safety. This rise of the “fair trade” and not “free trade” argument may empower Congress to pass more laws to force foreign countries to raise their own labor and environmental standards that cannot be accomplished in trade negotiations.

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