WASHINGTON –- Among the federal agencies hit hardest by the government shutdown is the Consumer Product Safety Commission -- an office no one pays much attention to until their kid's toy slices open her hand or their surge protector bursts into flames.
But the shutdown has left only 23 of the commission's 540 staffers on the job. All of the CPSC field investigators and port inspectors have been furloughed, leaving only a skeleton crew to investigate safety concerns for all products on the market in the U.S. As a result, the commission can only investigate complaints it considers an "imminent threat" to human life.
"We can't protect people," Inez Tenenbaum, CPSC chairwoman, told The Huffington Post on Friday, noting that there is a "very high threshold" to what the agency considers an imminent threat. "Our legal staff has taken a very strict construction of what is an imminent threat," she said.
That means things that burst into flames or explode probably count as an imminent threat, while products such as the Toys R Us toy trunks that may slice your hand or a child's play motorcycle with training wheels that fall off probably don't.
"We can't pursue product hazards that fall below an imminent threat," said Tenenbaum.
It also means the commission's prevention work has stopped, Tenenbaum said. Not having inspectors at the country's shipping ports means CPSC can't head off toys that contain too much lead or tiny parts that pose a choking hazard before they make it into U.S. stores. Staff trips to China and Indonesia to teach manufacturers there about how to comply with U.S. product safety standards were canceled as well. Work on new product standards and civil penalty negotiations has stopped.
People can still report product concerns via the CPSC's hotline and website. But there's no staff to investigate the complaint if it's not considered an imminent threat -- no one to determine if there needs to be a recall, and to post that recall on the CPSC website so consumers know about it. Tenenbaum said the CPSC receives about 200 product safety complaints every day. Most will go unaddressed until the shutdown ends.
The CPSC issued recall alerts for 19 products in September, including bedframes that kids might accidentally get their heads stuck in, bike brakes that don't actually brake, and bunny-themed footie pajamas that don't meet federal flammability standards. In October the agency posted one recall notice -- for the fire-prone surge protectors. That was already in the works before the shutdown, Tenenbaum said. The CPSC's website lists incident reports on 16,000 products.
Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and senior counsel at the Consumer Federation of America, testified before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Friday about several reports since the shutdown that the CPSC has been unable to address. They include an incident Monday in which a 2-year-old San Diego girl was crushed to death when a wicker chest of drawers tipped over and the television on top of it fell on her, and a Minnesota toddler who was hospitalized earlier this month after biting into a Tide laundry pod that he thought was candy.
"Because of the shutdown, CPSC is unable to investigate these incidents and unable to educate consumers about the prevention of these tragedies," Weintraub told senators.
Ami Gadhia, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, said it's "a really fuzzy line" between what's an imminent threat and what isn't. "You have no early warning to catch things," Gadhia said. "Essentially you're waiting for serious injury or death to happen."