For those playing Santa this year, there's a new online tool to check whether your toymaker is naughty or nice.
As part of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission launched a searchable database of all recalled products and complaints received from consumers.
The commission also recently passed a rule requiring third-party testing on all products designed for ages 12 and under, another key provision of the law.
Both measures are important steps in product safety for children after millions of products were recalled in 2007 because of high lead content, according to product safety advocates.
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"Both put teeth into the law passed in 2008," said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, a Chicago-based advocacy group for safer children's products.
The CPSC database at www.SaferProducts.gov has received more than 4,000 consumer product complaints since it launched in March, according to a spokeswoman for the commission. The complaints cover a wide range of products, including toys, clothing, nursery equipment and electronics. The website also carries all recall notices from the agency since it began in the early 1970s.
The site is gaining in popularity, now averaging more than 305,000 visits a month, according to the CPSC.
The law requires the agency to post consumer complaints within 20 business days of receiving them. Before complaints are posted, however, product manufacturers are notified and given a chance to respond. If the information submitted is shown to be false, the complaint is corrected or removed from the database.
The complaints can provide useful information for potential buyers, said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America.
"It's a very important consumer tool," she said. "Consumers can report harmful problems with products and research products."
One complaint posted by a parent last month described what happened when a 3-year-old tripped on her Disney Princess Trike made by KiddieLand Toys Limited:
"As she tried to get off, she tripped and impaled her face on the sharp castle protruding from the handlebars," the parent reported. "She is left with a severe laceration and scar on her face directly above her lip. The castle with sharp points has no place on a kid's toy let alone a bike. After the incident she was rushed to the emergency room and underwent reconstructive surgery to close the wounds."
No message from the manufacturer was added to this report, but the typical reply is a stock answer about how the company takes complaints seriously and provides contact information.
The complaints posted on the website shed new light on consumer information collected by the CPSC before it orders recalls, Weintraub said.
"The [new law] got rid of the secrecy regarding product hazards," she said. "CPSC could not release that information from consumers before."
An analysis of the first four months of posts on the website by Kids in Danger showed that about 20 percent of the consumer reports involved children's products or injuries to children, Cowles said.
The analysis also showed a flaw in the recall notification process by the CPSC: One in seven consumer complaints involved products already recalled, with most incidents happening after the recall, she said. "An ineffective recall system leaves dangerous products in consumers' hands," Cowles said. "The data in SaferProducts.gov bears that out."
Such was the case with the Disney trike complaint posted in October. CPSC had recalled 9,000 Princess Trikes in April after three reports of children suffering similar facial lacerations.
Another big breakthrough in children product safety won't affect products purchased this holiday season, but will soon.
Two weeks ago, the CPSC voted to put rules in place to require products designed for children 12 and under to undergo third-party safety testing before they are sold. Third-party testing was an important provision of the law passed with strong bipartisan support in 2008. Children's products will be tested for lead or lead paint in materials, to identify hazards that could cause injuries or choking, and to make sure that nursery products, including cribs and strollers, meet the strict standards required by the law, Weintraub said.
One area that should be aided by third-party testing will be children's jewelry, said Nasima Hossain, public health advocate for U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups. "There have been many recalls by CPSC in terms of metal in kids' jewelry -- high levels of lead and cadmium," she said. "We're hopeful this third-party testing will allow kids' jewelry to be safer in terms of toxins."
All domestic manufacturers, importers and private labelers of children's products will be required to test the products periodically to ensure compliance with the federal standards, according to the CPSC."I think we're on our way to having truly robust standards that will truly reduce the hazards of buying unsafe products," Weintraub said. Teresa McUsic's column appears Fridays.