(Update) Although a vote scheduled for Wednesday was postponed for a week, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is on the verge of approving a new database that's expected to dramatically change how it does business: Starting next March 11, the public will have access - for the first time since the agency's founding in 1972 - to data on product hazards reported by consumers, public-safety agencies, and others aware of incidents.
No longer will consumers get such information only if a recall is eventually negotiated with a manufacturer, or if an intrepid investigator goes through the CPSC's elaborate and unusual process for disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. Instead, the reports should be available online within 15 days.
Commission sources say that the final rule governing the new database is still expected to pass on a 3-2 vote, despite efforts by Republican commissioners to narrow its scope. One of the two Republicans, Anne Meagher Northup, exercised her right late Tuesday to delay the commission's meeting for a week.
To advocates such as Rachel Weintraub, product-safety counsel at the Consumer Federation of America, the new database represents a momentous change. She has been working to make sure it happens ever since the new database was mandated by Congress in 2008's Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which was passed in the wake of scandals over lead-tainted toys imported from China.
Weintraub says the new database will be invaluable for parents who want to avoid needless injury and potential tragedies. That's the perspective of Lisa L (Davis) Olney, a mother who lost a daughter nearly eight years ago in a portable play yard with a notorious design defect, and wrote about the new database's promise in a letter published Tuesday on the Kids in Danger website.
But Weintraub says the database will have impact far beyond child safety. In fact, she suggests the "poster case" for its value may be the injuries caused by an innocent-looking $10 aerosol can sold for a few months in 2005 at Home Depot stores.
In spring 2005, a company named Tile Perfect, a subsidiary of Roanoke Companies Group Inc. of Aurora, Ill., changed the formula of the product, Stand'n Seal "Spray-On" Grout Sealer. Stand'n Seal was designed to make it easier for homeowners or contractors to waterproof the grout in a shower or tub or on a bathroom floor.
On Aug. 31, 2005, Tile Perfect and the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced the product's recall: It advised consumers to not use Stand'n Seal, and asked for the return of 300,000 cans sold from April 2005 through June 2005.
The joint announcement, issued on CPSC letterhead, was terse and undoubtedly carefully lawyered, as such announcements always are.
The hazard, it said, was that the product didn't smell as noxious as it was: "The product's odor is not chemically pungent enough to force consumers to minimize their exposure to the fumes. Consumers overexposed to these fumes can experience respiratory-related illness."
As for incidents or injuries, it said: "There have been 88 reports from consumers who have had adverse reactions after using the aerosol product, including 28 confirmed reports of overexposure resulting in respiratory symptoms for which medical attention was sought for coughing, irritation, difficulty breathing, dizziness and disorientation. Thirteen individuals required medical treatment including overnight hospitalization."
What happened afterward isn't entirely clear, although numerous websites are devoted to lawsuits over Stand'n Seal injuries. A 2007 New York Times report said that there had been at least two deaths, and that cans of the product remained on store shelves well after the recall. Roanoke is no longer in business, and a spokeswoman for the company that bought its assets in 2006, St. Paul's H.B. Fuller Co., did not return my call.
But Weintraub is most concerned about what happened in the weeks and months before the recall - after Roanoke started getting reports of injuries but before the wheels of the CPSC had turned far enough to do other consumers any good.
Here's how the Times' Eric Lipton described what happened after one of Roanoke's suppliers switched an ingredient in the product, which he said was promoted at Home Depot with a photograph of a mock customer "standing, with no mask, in front of a closed window, spraying the product onto a bathroom floor":
... Only a few weeks after those reformulated cans reached Home Depot shelves, calls from customers, emergency rooms and doctors started to pour in to poison control centers and, initially in smaller numbers, to the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s own hot line.
Terri Keenan of Kyle, Tex., was one of those callers. Ms. Keenan used the spray in late May 2005 to seal tile in her kitchen and bathroom. Within an hour or so, she began feeling dizzy, thirsty and short of breath. Minutes later, she started foaming at the mouth; then she could not get up from the ground. Her husband rushed her to the hospital, where she remained for five days.
“I just could not understand what was happening,” Ms. Keenan said in an interview. “It was a nightmare.”
In another case, an 11-year-old Colorado boy, Tyler Himmelman, had stopped to speak to his father, who was using Stand ’n Seal on a bathroom shower, when the boy began coughing, struggling to breathe and then vomiting. He, too, ended up in the emergency room, where doctors said about 80 percent of the surface area of his lungs had been damaged, said Sandie Himmelman, his mother.
Weintraub says such delays are the rule, not the exception, when products cause injuries that eventually lead to recalls.
"The CPSC knew, and the manufacturer knew, about harms associated with the product," she says. "And consumers were still using it and getting injured."
Nothing, of course, can protect consumers from every possible hazard. But Weintraub is convinced that as more reports become available on the new database - after vetting by the CPSC to remove information deemed "materially inaccurate" or confidential - more consumers will come to look there for information, and injuries will be prevented.
Ultimately, Weintraub says, a better-informed marketplace will put more pressure on companies to minimize dangers when it counts most: in the engineering phase of product development, before consumers are exposed to unintended consequences.