House pushes $50 million to protect consumers from dangerous imports after USA TODAY investigative report

Letitia Stein and Brett Murphy, USA TODAY
·4 min read

The U.S. House of Representatives aims to set aside $50 million for increased safety screenings of toys and consumer products at U.S. ports after a USA TODAY investigation exposed a plunge in inspections for hazards such as lead and choking dangers during the coronavirus pandemic.

The spending proposal passed Friday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee is a significant cash infusion for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, whose annual budget last year was $133 million.

The legislation marks the second round of congressional scrutiny of the agency’s decision to send home its port inspectors for nearly six months last year because of the threat of COVID-19.

The agency made the decision in private and had kept the fallout hidden from Congress and the public until USA TODAY obtained internal documents revealing the extraordinary safety lapse, which coincided with the height of the holiday import season. Tens of thousands of shipments containing toys – as diverse as princess palaces and water guns – and other goods from overseas reached store shelves and American homes without standard screenings.

As of late last year, even though inspectors returned to ports beginning in September, the agency still was not operating in five of the 18 ports it usually patrols, USA TODAY found.

COVID-19 fallout: Toys at risk for lead, poison after US stopped inspections amid pandemic

The consumer safety commission declined to answer questions from USA TODAY about whether it is now back in those ports, which included major commerce hubs in Chicago, New York and Savannah, Georgia.

Federal safety inspections at the nation's ports for hazards such as lead and choking dangers in products have plunged during the coronavirus pandemic.
Federal safety inspections at the nation's ports for hazards such as lead and choking dangers in products have plunged during the coronavirus pandemic.

The agency’s acting chairman, Robert Adler, sent a letter this week to leading lawmakers on the House committee calling the funding “sorely needed.”

“If our task was immense before the pandemic, it is even more so now,” he wrote. “CPSC is prepared to use the funds outlined in the bill, including an expanded presence of port inspectors at U.S. ports of entry.”

After USA TODAY’s investigation, Congress directed the agency to not only resume its port operations but expand them. In pandemic relief legislation, the safety commission was instructed to increase its surveillance with at least 16 new hires. It usually has about 32 inspectors working at ports.

The new legislation would provide funding for the mandate, which the agency could spend through 2026.

Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois who chairs the House consumer protection subcommittee, has faulted the agency for not doing its job during the pandemic. During a hearing on the funding on Friday, she noted the money also would help the agency address a rise in online sales during the pandemic.

“The CPSC does not have enough staff at ports in particular to stop dangerous products from entering from foreign countries,” she said.

Congress had told the agency to assess what hazards might have slipped in during the months when routine inspections plunged and report back by the end of June.

Consumers have no way of detecting the dangers that may have entered their homes. The safety commission did not flag a single toy at the ports between June and July for poisonous lead levels, one of the most frequent violations, internal records showed. In August, port inspectors reported 47 screenings for all hazards – less than 2% of a typical month before the pandemic.

Lead paint on a child’s toy is not visible, consumer advocates have warned, and parents trust that products on store shelves marketed for children younger than 3 years will not choke them.

The House bill also calls for the the agency to step up its monitoring of online sales and urges the agency to focus on assessing the risks faced by disadvantaged and vulnerable consumers.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has put new strains on American consumers and shed light on significant limitations in the CPSC’s ability to protect the public,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., a Democrat from New Jersey, said in a statement to USA TODAY, noting that the agency has long been underfunded.

The money is included in a sweeping proposal funding vaccinations and increased COVID-19 tracking and other pandemic relief efforts. It has several legislative steps to clear before it could become law.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: House pushes $50 million for port safety screenings shuttered by COVID