Consumer product website dodges GOP budget ax

Newly launched CPSC online compendium of items verified as possible safety risks still opposed by manufacturers groups.

Four days after St. Patrick's Day, the battery in a St. Patrick's light-up necklace burst into flames in a house in Wisconsin, burning a kitchen table and causing smoke damage to the home, a buyer reported to the Consumer Products Safety Commission.

Soon, a warning about the combustible cosmetic jewelry was posted on the agency's new, searchable database of allegedly dangerous produces, SaferProducts.gov. In the late-night frenzy April 8 over the 2011 federal budget, Republicans who object to the month-old consumer-targeted website were unsuccessful in their bid to cut its funding.

Hence a warning about defective Shimano bicycle pedal crankshafts remains posted there. So is a complaint about faulty motor clamps on a Craftsman router, and dozens of other accounts of consumer encounters with malfunctioning and dangerous products.

In 2008, amid an onslaught of faulty products -- many of them imported -- Congress ordered CPSC to create database to alert consumers before they made purchases. But this year, as lawmakers searched for federal spending to cut, business lobbyists urged them to eliminate SaferProducts.gov, just weeks after it launched on March 11.

The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, the National Association of Manufacturers and other organizations argued the database would make it easier for disgruntled customers and business rivals to unfairly characterize products and slander them and their manufacturers.

In February, Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., sided with the manufacturers and pushed an amendment through the House to block CPSC from spending any money from the 2011 budget to operate the database.

But Pompeo's provision was assailed by Sens. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and ultimately it was thrown out during negotiations that led to a budget agreement.

CPSC has taken steps to ease manufacturers' concerns. Only complaints about products that have caused injury or death will be posted on SaferProducts.gov, not complaints about products that failed to perform up to consumer expectations, said Patrick Weddle, chief information officer of CPSC. And consumers who complain must identify themselves to CPSC, though they remain anonymous on the website if their complaints are posted.

Before posting complaints, CPSC notifies manufacturers and gives them 10 days to respond. That gave Shimano the opportunity to note that the faulty crankshaft in the March complaint had been recalled in 1997.

And through SaferProducts.gov, Shimano urged bike owners with defective crankshafts to "immediately stop using the bicycle and contact their local bicycle shop or Shimano customer service" to arrange for a free replacement.

Collecting consumer complaints isn't new for CPSC, but making them available to the public online is, Weddle said. Since 1973, the agency has gathered complaints from consumers, coroners, medical examiners and other sources. But until now, consumers had to file Freedom of Information Act requests to view complaints about dangerous products.

Access to consumer complaints and company responses likely will be made even easier in the future, Weddle said. "We're looking at things like an application program interface" that would enable application developers to write apps that permit access to SaferProducts.gov through iPhone and Android smartphones.