WASHINGTON — The new head of consumer safety in the United States has quickly put American and foreign toymakers, crib manufacturers and producers of other goods on notice that there's a new sheriff in town.
The sheriff is a she.
Folks who've worked with Inez Tenenbaum say that despite her small physical stature and genteel Southern manners, the former South Carolina public schools chief is tough as nails.
"Her daddy always told her that dynamite comes in small packages," Liz Crum, a Columbia lawyer and longtime friend of Tenenbaum, told McClatchy. "That is absolutely true of Inez. No one should ever underestimate her."
Tenenbaum, who was defeated in a 2004 U.S. Senate race by Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, has started with a bang in her job as chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In just eight months since President Barack Obama named Tenenbaum, and the Senate confirmed her, for the post, she's haggled with Chinese officials over lead in toys, consoled parents of toddlers who died in defective cribs and toured Florida houses built with Chinese drywall that's making homeowners sick.
Tenenbaum has parried with lawmakers grandstanding for the cameras at congressional hearings, and she's been a frequent guest on morning talk shows and news programs to publicize product recalls.
Already, Tenenbaum is overseeing 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.
Tenenbaum, 58, is overseeing the revitalization of the key federal consumer safety agency after years of neglect and budget cuts under President George W. Bush.
For the first time in a quarter-century, all five commissioners are in place, and the 500-strong staff of scientists, engineers, researchers and other analysts is expanding.
The agency is required to police the production and sale of 15,000 products on a relatively modest annual budget of $118 million — which nevertheless is almost twice the funding level of $63 million Congress provided just four years ago.
The commission's power has been augmented under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which Congress passed and Bush signed into law in 2008 after a wave of high-profile recalls of mainly Chinese-made toys with high levels of lead.
"When you look at where we have been and where we are headed, you can see why we are an agency on the rise," Tenenbaum told hundreds of delegates Wednesday at the annual convention of the International Consumer Product Health and Safety Organization.
The group, formed in 1993, brings together manufacturers, importers, retailers, lawyers, scholars, state agents and product-testing labs in an effort to develop voluntary safety standards for thousands of consumer goods — and to comply with mandatory rules.
"We are a new commission that has new powers — and we are not afraid to use them," Tenenbaum told the delegates.
Consumer advocates are thrilled by such clarion calls.
"I can sense a new atmosphere at the commission," said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids In Danger, a Chicago-based advocacy group formed in 1989 by two professors after their son died in a portable crib at a licensed daycare center.
"On cribs and other juvenile products, real change is happening," Cowles said.
Consumer groups regularly railed against Tenenbaum's predecessor, Nancy Nord, a former Eastman Kodak Co. lobbyist who they derided as an industry apologist.
Mike Dwyer, executive director of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, gave a more guarded reaction to Tenenbaum's early tenure.
"She is clearly committed to product safety," said Dwyer, whose group represents 95 percent of the $2.7 billion industry of companies that make toys, cribs, nursery equipment and other products for babies and kids. "I think the learning curve for (her) position is pretty steep. And coming from her background in education, it is perhaps even a bit steeper for the chairwoman."
Inez Tenenbaum is plenty busy in her new post as chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In her first eight months on the job, Tenenbaum has pursued more than a dozen key initiatives. Among her activities:
_ Visited China twice to negotiate with officials there over defective drywall and lead in toys
_ Helped open her agency's office in Beijing - the commission's first overseas bureau
_ Moved up by 18 months - to December 2010 - the implementation of mandatory crib-safety standards
_ Developed the first federal online database of recalls, defective goods and consumer complaints, slated to go live March 2011 at www.saferproducts.gov
_ Launched CPSC 2.0, a social media initiative using Twitter, Facebook and other networking sites to publicize recalls and other consumer-safety information
_ Toured homes with Chinese drywall that's causing respiratory illness; worked with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control on a major scientific probe of such drywall from homes across the country
_ Preparing to open a $7 million product-testing lab near the agency's headquarters in Bethesda, Md., which will make it less reliant on outside evaluators
_ Inspected 1,200 public pools and spas under a 2007 law named in honor of the granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker, who died in a hot tub accident
_ Imposed significant fines on RC2, Fisher-Price, Mattel, Target and other firms that did major recalls of mainly Chinese-made toys with lead paint
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