WASHINGTON — The new head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission leaves Tuesday on a trip to warn Chinese and other major Asian exporters to expect tougher regulation of toys, drywall and other products found to have recent defects after entering the U.S.
Inez Tenenbaum, a former South Carolina public schools superintendent who was confirmed by the Senate last month to head the consumer agency, will spend nine days in Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam.
Tenenbaum will address foreign leaders in Singapore for the annual summit of APEC, a major trade group that coordinates commercial ties among the U.S., Canada, Russia and 18 Asian countries.
In dozens of meetings with government and business dignitaries from across the vast region, Tenenbaum planned to use Southern charm to deliver a key message: Her agency is aggressively enforcing consumer safety measures after years of funding cuts, staff reductions and commission vacancies under former President George W. Bush.
"We must do more to protect the American public — especially our nation's children — from being harmed by unsafe products," President Barack Obama said in May when he tapped Tenenbaum to lead the agency.
Two-thirds of American consumer products now come from overseas, including a large share from China.
In just a few weeks since taking the helm, Tenenbaum has met with Chinese representatives on their way to Florida and Louisiana to probe health and safety problems linked to drywall made in their country.
"They've sent their scientists to visit homes to try to assess what elements are in the drywall that are causing respiratory issues and corrosion of electrical wires," Tenenbaum said in an interview before leaving Washington.
The drywall defects — and earlier problems with Chinese toys made with lead paint — have prompted some members of Congress to call for sanctions against Beijing if it doesn't exert more control over the production of its exported goods.
Tenenbaum said the Chinese officials she's met with appear sincere in wanting to resolve the drywall issues.
"They have not denied it's a problem," Tenenbaum said. "They're trying to isolate the problem with the drywall and to look at solutions."
Tenenbaum said members of her staff of 450 — half what the agency had under President Ronald Reagan more than two decades ago — will travel to China in the coming weeks to visit drywall factories and speak with their managers.
"Our scientists will be working with their scientists so we can reach a conclusion based on facts," Tenenbaum said.
Accompanying Tenenbaum on her Asia trip will be Carter Keithley, head of the Toy Industry Association, the main lobbying group for American manufacturers of children's games, dolls and other playthings.
At all three Asia stops, Tenenbaum and Keithley will brief their foreign counterparts on new requirements under the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which Congress passed partly in response to public uproar over Chinese lead-painted toys.
The new law bans lead and phthalates — a chemical used to soften plastics — in children's products. It also requires tracking labels, ad warnings and third-party testing and certification of imported toys and other goods.
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