A new federal database that went online this week allows consumers for the first time to view safety complaints that other people have filed against specific products.
Proponents of the database, Saferproducts.gov, contend it will better inform consumers about dangerous products, but some legislators and industry groups say the system doesn't allow enough time to ensure the information is accurate.
The database was launched by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) after Congress told the agency to make its reporting system more transparent. For years, the commission has gathered reports on incidents of injury and death but has generally kept them confidential.
"This is information that has been in the dark, but now the laws have changed," says Scott Wolfson, director of public affairs at CPSC.
The database allows consumers to conduct a search for safety problems with specific products. For example, if you type in "refrigerator," you will get a list of formal recalls and also specific complaints that previous buyers have filed concerning the appliances. By opting for an "advanced search," you can view just the complaints.
On the first day of its launch, April 4, the SaferProducts.gov database listed 18 complaints, eight of them with response comments from the manufacturer in question. The complaints included a light in a refrigerator that would not go off and a curling iron that turned itself on.
One consumer reported that a Whirlpool electric oven automatically switched from bake mode to self-cleaning mode, locked the oven and burned the food inside. The user reported repeating the procedure several times after the oven cooled down and the same malfunction occurred. This item did not include a response from Whirlpool.
My shoes hurt
A 52-year-old woman in North Dakota complained that a pair of Sears Holdings running shoes she had bought at Kmart caused her pain in her Achilles tendon. She reported that she visited a doctor, who said nothing could be done, but after she stopped wearing the shoes, her pain went away.
In a posted response, Sears Holdings said that it "takes product safety issues very seriously. We investigate each CPSC database incident report. We encourage our customers to provide additional information about incidents to our Customer Care Network by calling 800-549-4505."
A wave of recalls for children's products in 2007 — prompted by crib deaths, lead violations, magnets falling out of toys and other hazards — helped bring about the public database. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 granted the CPSC more authority to tweak the system to make it more responsive and open.
The rules of the database
Consumers who visit the database can file safety complaints against a wide range of products. Off the table are food, drugs, cosmetics, cars, boats, tires and guns, which are regulated by other federal agencies.
To register a complaint, you must provide your name, the name of the manufacturer and model number, as well as other key information. False information is supposed to be removed from the site, and anyone found intentionally submitting a false complaint may face legal action.
According to the rules of the site, CPSC has five business days to review each complaint and decide whether to send it on to the manufacturer, which has 10 days to respond. More than 2,000 companies have enrolled in the program, which allows them to get timely notification of complaints against their products.
If the complaint filing is complete, relevant and is not found to contain material inaccuracies, it is posted on the database 15 days after its receipt, for the public to view.
A concern for accuracy
Some members of Congress have expressed concern that this timetable is too short to ensure accuracy. "The agency is required to put information online within a certain time period. Even if that information is inaccurate," said Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.).
Pompeo pressed unsuccessfully for a delay in making the database public until such concerns were addressed. He said he wanted better evidence of "causation between harm and product, so we'd have something more than just a blog."
Pompeo says grandparents using the site to decide on gifts for their grandchildren would be "relying on information that has the seal of approval stamp from the government, but is unreliable."
The database's pages display a disclaimer that reads: "CPSC does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the contents of the Publicly Available Consumer Product Safety Information Database on SaferProducts.gov, particularly with respect to information submitted by people outside of CPSC."
The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) has also been critical. In a filing to the commission, the industry group said that 30 percent of the complaints passed on to companies in a test phase had not been adequately filtered to ensure that they involved "harm" as defined by the law. Companies said they received complaints about products that they did not make, and that commission staff did not acknowledge those errors.
Correcting the vetting process is "essential to fundamental fairness," Rosario Palmieri, vice president for infrastructure, legal and regulatory policy at NAM, wrote in the filing. The association supports the idea of a database but does not believe that "a poorly-functioning database serves the public interest."
Important consumer tool
Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety at the Consumer Federation of America, calls industry opposition an attempt to cling to a status quo "that has been good for manufacturers at the expense of consumers, who have been in the dark. The database is a very important consumer tool. Consumers need to know that it's out there and that it's a resource for them."
She predicts it will help create a class of more educated consumers with information at their fingertips when deciding on purchases. "We also hope it can be a place where trends can be spotted early so that safety measures can be taken sooner rather than later."
In the past, she said, regulators have sometimes received 50 or 60 reports of a hazardous product before ordering a recall. CPSC encourages people to visit the website for themselves. "We believe the database has the potential to save a life, " she said.
In one current posting, a woman says that her 10-month-old son choked to death between the side rail and headboard of a ChildCraft crib in 1997 (there is no limit to how old a complaint incident can be). The mother writes that she is aware CPSC ordered a recall of the model, but that she "felt compelled to post on this database because ChildCraft drop side cribs are still in homes and day cares." There was no posted response from ChildCraft.
Talia Schmidt is an intern with the AARP Bulletin.