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How the CPSC keeps consumers safe from products that get recalled

  • Around 400 products get recalled yearly by the CPSC, which is charged with examining thousands of shipments annually.
  • While most recalls are voluntary, the agency works with companies to get the word out to consumers.
  • Critics still say there are shortfalls in the communication process,

Fidget spinners are all the rage among children, but the government recently warned that some contain small pieces that could be a choking habit for small children.

For regulators for the charged with the task of keeping Americans safe, it's all in a day's work. If a product is shown to have a substantial hazard, it can be subject to recall. Consumers purchase millions of dollars of product that is later recalled every year.

Up to 400 products are recalled yearly by Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), a government agency that oversees products consumers use every day. The relatively obscure agency has control over 15,000 products, ranging from everything to toys, electronics, off road vehicles and bike helmets.

"We look at an injury or an incident, and we determine the volume of product in the market, how severe and how likely the injury of the incident is," said acting CPSC Chairman, Ann Marie Buerkle.

Other recalls are overseen by other government agencies. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), oversee the recall of food. Meanwhile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) oversees car recalls.

A toy truck is tested for lead at the Port of Newark, NJ.
CNBC
A toy truck is tested for lead at the Port of Newark, NJ.

Since the U.S. imports millions of dollars' worth of products, the process often starts at the ports.

"The CPSC examines 8,000 shipments a year…. When they arrive, they are unloaded, and we examine them, often box by box," said Ariel Silverman, a CPSC compliance investigator.

CNBC shadowed Silverman recently as she checked a shipment of toys from China at the Port of Newark, New Jersey. She found boxes of toy trucks contaminated with lead.

"We invest in and we believe in the work that's done at the ports, because that prevents it from ever getting into the hands of the consumer. And that's really where it's most effective," Buerkle said.

A helmet is tested to make sure it meets standards at the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s lab in Rockville, MD.
CNBC
A helmet is tested to make sure it meets standards at the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s lab in Rockville, MD.

Products flagged at the port are sent to the CPSC's lab in Maryland for further testing. CNBC observed that process, along with testing for phthalates — a chemical added to plastics to make them soft. Phthalates are banned from children's toys, as they are believed to cause hormone and neurological effects.

The CPSC begins looking into products after companies or consumers report issues. Companies are required to report issues to the agency.

"Our compliance staff then reviews whatever it is that that company reported and makes a determination as to whether or not a recall would be necessary," Buerkle said.

Around half of reports results in a recall. Most recalls are voluntary, with the company working with regulators on how to let consumers know.

But even pulling products from the shelves does not mean they are out of the hands of consumers. Buerkle noted most recalls have a 65 percent effective rate, meaning 35 percent of products are not returned or fixed.

Once a recall is issued, companies are required to pull the product from their shelves, but can still be financially liable. Recently, Home Depot agreed to a $5.7 million civil penalty for selling recalled products.

The retail giant"...proactively alerted the CPSC to the problem because we appreciate the seriousness of the matter," a Home Depot spokesman told CNBC in an e-mail.

"We fixed a process glitch that allowed a relatively small number of recalled products to be sold through various channels," the spokesman added. "None resulted in injuries."

Separately, Amazon is facing a lawsuit over glasses sold to view the solar eclipse last month. A couple alleges they never received notice the glasses they purchased were recalled, and claim they suffered eye damage.

"Out of an abundance of caution and in the interests of our customers, we asked third-party sellers that were offering solar eclipse glasses to provide documentation to verify their products were compliant with relevant safety standards….The listings from sellers who did not provide the appropriate documentation have been removed and customers who purchased from them were notified last week," an Amazon spokeswoman said in an e-mail. They would not comment on the pending litigation.

A scientist tests a sample to see if it contains Phthalates at the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s lab in Rockville, MD.
CNBC
A scientist tests a sample to see if it contains Phthalates at the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s lab in Rockville, MD.

Trying to get the public's attention

In order to ensure the news gets spread far and wide, CPSC uses multiple methods to let consumers know about a recall.

"The most important part of a recall is getting to the consumer… we will work that out with the business who is participating in the recall with us, because they know best how to contact their consumer," Buerkle said. "We'll do press releases. We'll try to get the media's attention, because they can help us. Or we use Twitter and Facebook."

Still, consumer advocates wish the government and companies did more to let consumers know.

"Recalls are not as effective as they could be. We wish more consumers learned about them… retailers don't want to spend the money, don't want to shame themselves by promoting the recall heavily," said Ed Mierzwinski, the consumer program director for U.S. PIRG, a consumer advocacy group.

Last year, Ikea recalled 29 million dressers after 4 children died when they fell over, an incident Mierzwinski cited as an example where consumers could have been better informed.

"Only about less than 500,000 consumers either got a refund or wrote to Ikea and got some special screws to anchor it to the wall," Mierzwinski said.

In a statement e-mailed to CNBC, an Ikea spokeswoman said, "… IKEA has been working with the CPSC on the recall of millions of MALM and other model chests and dressers that did not comply with the US voluntary industry.

The company "worked with the CPSC to develop a comprehensive plan that included national print, digital and television advertising, in-store and IKEA.com communication, media relations, social media promotion, outreach to IKEA Family members, and more," the spokeswoman added. "Even now, more than a year later, we are proactively reaching out to customers to communicate the recall."

Here are some tips to find out if products you have at home are recalled:

  • The government keeps a list of product recalls online. For CPSC recalls, go to cpsc.gov. Also, try recalls.gov for recalls across agencies.
  • You should also fill out registration cards that come with products. That way companies know who to contact in case of issues.
  • Be wary when buying items directly from overseas, like China. "The challenge is always companies overseas Chinese manufacturers who are not aware of our regulations and try to bring product in that doesn't comply," Buerkle said.
  • Also be weary of resale websites. While it is illegal to sell a recalled product, consumers sometimes unknowingly do. You should check the product with online recall lists before buying.