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GLRPPR Sector Resource: The Consumer Product Safety Commission and Nanotechnology

The Consumer Product Safety Commission and Nanotechnology

When it was created in 1972, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) was hailed as "the most powerful federal regulatory agency ever created." It has never lived up to these expectations, struggling since its inception to carry out its mandate: to protect Americans from unreasonable risks associated with consumer products. In the 1970s, CPSC strived to set priorities and to justify its existence; in the 1980s, it fought for its life against many in the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate and White House who wanted to abolish it. In the 1990s, CPSC staff and consumer advocates breathed a sigh of relief when a Democrat was elected to the White House, but by the end of the decade, there was little to celebrate. Congress, with the blessing of the White House, cut, then froze, CPSC's budget. At the same time, retailers were building and filling mega-stores with inexpensive foreign-made goods, creating, by the 21st century, a vast resource imbalance between CPSC and the industries it regulates. This imbalance goes far to explain why, during 2007 House and Senate hearings, the picture of CPSC that emerged was one of a crippled agency, failing to protect Americans from unsafe products. In the past five years alone, tens of millions of toys covered with lead paint (a substance that has been banned for decades) turned up in children's playrooms, dozens of children required abdominal surgery after swallowing tiny magnets that had broken off of shoddily made and inadequately tested toys and dozens of do-it-yourselfers were rushed to hospitals with respiratory illness after inhaling the fumes of a spray-on grout made with a poisonous ingredient. CSPC regulators were slow to discover these problems, slow to notify consumers and even slower to take action against the manufacturers that profited from the sale of these hazardous products. CPSC's inability to carry out its mandate with respect to simple, low-tech products such as Thomas the Tank Engine toy trains, Barbie dolls and Easy-Bake Ovens bodes poorly for its ability to oversee the safety of complex, high-tech products made using nanotechnology. The agency lacks the budget, the statutory authority and the scientific expertise to ensure that the hundreds of nanoproducts now on the market, among them baby bottle nipples, infant teething rings, teddy bears, paints, waxes, kitchenware and appliances, are safe. This problem will only worsen as more sophisticated nanotechnology-based products begin to enter the consumer market.


Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Resource Type:

Date of Publication:
August 2008

Associated Sectors:


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