Don't try this at home: U.S. opens product safety lab

McClatchy NewspapersJune 13, 2011 

ROCKVILLE, Md. — The opening of a start-of-the-art testing lab Monday for the chief federal consumer protection agency will give Washington more muscle in preventing Americans from buying and using unsafe products.

Inez Tenenbaum, the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said the new center outside Washington will enable her agency to do better, faster and cheaper tests of the products its inspectors confiscate at the nation's ports and in unannounced retail store sweeps.

"This is a moment many years in the making," Tenenbaum told reporters outside the lab in a Maryland suburb 25 miles north of the nation's capital. "This brand new testing facility behind me is an investment in the safety of American families."

The 32,000-sqare-foot center is 2 1/2 times bigger than the aging, leaking lab the CPSC had used for decades, with a limited testing capacity that required the agency to hire private firms to evaluate some products.

The new center has 75 engineers and other scientists, almost double the number who worked at the CPSC's previous lab at a nearby site that was used as an Army missile radar site until 1975.

"Every test they run, every result they record, every hazard they detect, is about one thing in the end — keeping children and consumers safe," Tenenbaum said.

The center has nine labs to run specialized tests on imported and domestic goods that kill or maim hundreds of Americans a year, from toys and other children's products to pools and spas, bike helmets and electronics.

In one lab, technicians placed shiny bike helmets into a vise, then released a giant anvil that smashed into them from 10 feet above, with one helmet cracking in half and the other remaining intact.

Other scientists set children's pajamas on fire to see how fast they burned, torched an upholstered chair to measure the heat the flames emitted and lit a firecracker to determine whether its wick would give someone at least three seconds to run away before igniting the explosive.

In another lab, a vise held a hair clip as a cone-shaped steel sensor burrowed down against it and, with red lights flashing, sent data to an adjacent computer that measured the lead in the bright green paint coating the clip.

"America's families can sleep better at night knowing that the consumer safety cops are on the beat and in the lab," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who helped secure funding for the lab as the chairman of a Senate appropriations subcommittee.

The government is leasing the center from a private lab and spent $24 million to retrofit it to meet federal safety standards, which Tenenbaum said is a fraction of what it would have cost to build a lab.

The new center will save taxpayers more money over time because the CPSC won't have to subcontract out as many product tests.

The other tests the center can conduct include setting mattresses ablaze in a flammability chamber, injecting carbon monoxide into a compartment to check alarms for the toxic gas, and putting all-terrain vehicles on a giant tilt table to measure road stability.

Tenenbaum was in Brazil and Mexico last week negotiating accords with their governments to unify consumer-protection standards, set up training programs, share information and establish procedures for conducting joint product recalls.

Tenenbaum has made four trips to China, which makes 80 percent of the toys that Americans buy and 42 percent of all consumer products in the U.S.

Congress increased the commission's power in 2008 when it passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act after a wave of high-profile recalls of mainly Chinese-made toys with high levels of lead.

Tenenbaum last year launched the largest crib recall in U.S. history — the repair or return of 2.1 million drop-side baby beds made by Canada-based Stork Craft Manufacturing after four reported deaths of infants who suffocated when the railings pinned their heads.

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