Defective: New report on product recalls reinforces that a flawed federal law has led to unnecessary injuries
The researchers call on Congress to better protect consumers
InvestigateTV - Despite its best efforts to safeguard consumers from dangerous household items, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is hamstrung, in large part, by Congress.
A new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund reaffirms what InvestigateTV’s ongoing Defective series has found:
- That the CPSC doesn’t have the budget to fully protect Americans from dangerous products.
- That it lacks the authority to immediately warn consumers or issue a recall without manufacturers consent.
- That manufacturers that widely market their products largely fall silent when their products are recalled. There are no TV ads telling consumers to stop using a defective item and barely a mention on their social media sites.
“The law prohibits the Consumer Product Safety Commission from protecting consumers,” said Teresa Murray, the report’s author and a consumer watchdog with PIRG, a nonprofit, nonpartisan consumer advocacy group. “They’re not allowed to do it by law if it involves saying bad things about a company by name, which is just mind-blowing.”
Murray analyzed the 292 products recalled in 2022 and 3,600 complaints to the CPSC about those items and found that those defective products remained on the market for months after the danger was first reported as injuries mounted.
“What surprised me the most was how often people were filing complaints. Complaint after complaint after complaint, and it wasn’t a product that had been recalled yet,” Murray said.
The group’s work also confirmed InvestigateTV’s prior reporting that a majority of recalled products are not returned to the manufacturers and remain unaccounted for, that companies sometimes delay alerting the CPSC about potential hazards and that a 51-year-old law silences the agency.
“As a consumer advocate, I mean, it’s gut wrenching to know that these companies and the regulators have this information about kids dying, people dying, people getting injured, people having fires of their houses, whatever. And for this information to be out there and, you know, with the government and with the companies and nothing to be done for months or even years, it’s awful,” Murray said.
She analyzed reports submitted to SaferProducts.Gov, the CPSC website set up for consumers, coroners, doctors and other members of the public to report a potential product defect.
The website urges consumers to “protect your family and search to see if a product is unsafe before you buy.”
But the website does not contain any reports made to manufacturers, potentially giving consumers a false sense of security.
Researchers highlighted the case of Horizon treadmills that were recalled in October. The recall says that the manufacturer received at least 874 reports of the treadmill unexpectedly changing speeds or stopping.
More than 70 people were injured, the recall notice said.
But a search on SaferProducts.gov shows only eight reports of the treadmill malfunctioning.
Last month, InvestigateTV reported on its comparison of recall notices of 429 products in which consumers died or were injured or had numerous breakdowns against what was publicly reported on SaferProducts.gov.
Those household products were linked in recall notices to 62 deaths, nearly 1,600 injuries and more than 23,000 product defects such as toys with small parts breaking off but causing no harm to children.
But if a consumer went looking for incident reports tied to those products before the recall, they may have received false assurances.
For those same products, CPSC’s public data collection reports only 13 deaths, 135 injuries and 96 product breakdowns.
The CPSC was created in 1972 to oversee more than 15,000 types of consumer products from appliances to zippers, cribs to strollers, lawn darts to lawn mowers.
But Congress purposely restricted the CPSC’s authority to act on its own when it learned of a potential hazard with an everyday item. The reason: Manufacturers claim if the government inappropriately warns the public about a potential problem that’s later found to be incorrect, the reputational damage is already done.
So now, the agency has to seek permission from the manufacturer of the defective product before it could alert the public.
That provision of the law – section 6(b) – is oftentimes referred to as the “gag rule” by consumer advocates and some CPSC commissioners.
In the past year, though, CPSC commissioners have become bolder and have issued warnings about specific products in spite of section 6(b).
PIRG highlighted the case of Onewheel skateboards.
The CPSC was aware of at least four deaths tied to the product and multiple reports of serious injuries after the skateboard failed to properly balance the rider or suddenly stopped.
Riders suffered traumatic brain injuries, concussions, fractures and/or paralysis, according to the PIRG report.
A 31-year-old man reported that he suffered a head trauma and now is blind in one eye. A 47-year-old man said that his arm was broken in four pieces.
With the company refusing to recall the product, the CPSC issued a rare – and bold - warning about the skateboard in November.
CPSC Commissioner Richard Trumka Jr. issued an even starker warning: “Immediately stop using all Onewheel electric skateboards—they are not worth dying for,” the warning says. “CPSC asked Future Motion to stop selling the Onewheel and to advise its customers not to use this product. The company refused. Future Motion is unwilling to take appropriate action to fix a product hazard that has killed people.”
The company wrote in a press release in response to the CPSC’s warning, “Onewheel electric skateboards are safe when operated following common-sense safe riding practices that are common to any board sport. We strongly disagree with the CPSC’s unjustified and alarmist claims, and we see no reason for riders to stop using their boards.”
But Crystal Ellis knows that, despite the agency’s best efforts, product warnings can easily fall on deaf ears. She spoke with InvestigateTV last year about her tragedy.
In 2015, months after her nearly 2-year-old son became entrapped in an IKEA Malm dresser and died, the company and CPSC issued a joint warning, telling consumers to anchor the dressers to the wall to prevent tipovers. It noted that two children had died after the dressers tipped over.
“After my son died, you know what? They got an education campaign,” Ellis told InvestigateTV last year.
IKEA didn’t consent to a recall until a third child died – later in 2015.
“I remember sitting with the CPSC the first time and just saying, ‘Why was my son an education campaign?’” she said. “Why were the children before that not important enough? Because when you drag your feet, children die.”
Then, in 2017, the CPSC and IKEA re-announced the recall, reporting that they were then aware of eight children who had died and 91 children who had been injured when the dressers tipped over.
“The companies, when they market products to us, spend millions upon millions upon millions of dollars. If they want every person in the world to know about their product, they’ll spend the money to get there,” Ellis said. “But the day they find out their product is unsafe, they have no idea how to reach people, they have no idea how to tell people about a recall.”
The CPSC last year passed new mandatory design and safety standards for dressers to prevent tipovers.
CPSC Commissioner Richard Trumka Jr. told InvestigateTV last year that Congress needs to repeal section 6(b) in order to give the agency the true authority to protect consumers.
“The gag rule prevents this agency from doing what it should be able to do very easily. We learn about a risk, we should be able to communicate that to the public so the next day, they can start taking whatever choices they want to take to protect themselves and their families,” Trumka said. “They’re entitled to that. I think it’s the bare minimum.”
Trumka added, “It’s an easy fix.”
Yet Congress has rebuffed efforts to allow the CPSC to fully protect consumers. A Senate bill that would have repealed that gag rule provision, the Sunshine in Product Safety Act, died without a hearing last year.
Consumer advocates are hoping the new Congress will resurrect it.
“It’s really depressing ... It’s infuriating to see this is not a new problem,” Murray said. “And yet nothing has been done. And what we’re hoping is that enough decision makers in the right places take notice of this and cause something to change. Because until the law changes and until companies are required to do more, then people are going to continue to get hurt and have serious problems in their homes.”
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