By KEVIN DIAZ, Star Tribune
WASHINGTON - It started with Jarnell Brown, a 4-year-old Minneapolis boy who died two years ago after swallowing a heart-shaped charm made almost entirely of lead.
Then came last year's "summer of recalls."
By December, government regulators in near crisis mode had recalled almost 30 million toys, many of them because of lead. And the problem keeps flaring up. Last week, U.S. officials recalled 84,000 children's storage bins from Taiwan because the surface paint has high levels of lead.
Now Congress is poised to make the first major overhaul of consumer product safety laws in a generation -- including a virtual ban on lead in toys, something never tried before.
One of the key players in the coming weeks' negotiations will be Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who was a Senate candidate when Brown died. She has made toy safety the signature issue of her first year in Washington, introducing the lead ban and other measures that make it easier to identify hazardous products.
While give-and-take is expected on other provisions of the sweeping bill, particularly those governing recalls and consumer notification -- Congress is expected to finally agree that lead has no place in toys, whether made domestically, in China or elsewhere.
"The marketplace has greatly changed," said Klobuchar.
"But our rules and our regulators have not changed with it," she said.
As a Senate negotiator, Klobuchar will be well-positioned to get her provisions into the final bill, which must be reconciled with a less stringent version passed by the House.
How far should law go?
The safety legislation covers an array of merchandise regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, from cribs and children's car seats to all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). It has generally garnered broad bipartisan support, including from Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.
One of the main sticking points is a Senate-passed measure establishing an online government database of consumer complaints nationwide.
A coalition of business executives in the National Association of Manufacturers raised concerns about the database in a recent letter to Senate leaders. "Eliminating protections from disclosure would unduly alarm consumers, harm companies, and serve as a deterrent to the sharing of information now provided voluntarily," they wrote.
Some critics have also taken aim at the money provisions in the bill, which will more than double the safety commission's $63 million budget, permitting it to bolster inspections and enforcement.
"It sounds good," said James Gattuso, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, "but are more bureaucrats necessarily going to be the answer?"
Consumer advocates say the legislation is a long overdue response to the proliferation of goods from abroad, particularly China, the target of the bulk of last year's recalls.
"It's a vast improvement over the status quo," said Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America.
The consumer safety bill has also won support from major toy retailers, who have been rocked by the recalls of toys and other child products.
"We were advocates for this legislation before there was a bill," said Toys 'R' Us chief executive Gerald Storch, a former Target executive who worked with Klobuchar on the lead safety provisions. "We want to reassure the American public that their products are safe."
Toys 'R' Us, like other major toy sellers, has already instituted new quality assurance standards for suppliers, including more inspections and stringent lead levels.
Ban sale of recalled toys
Klobuchar's provisions are aimed at reducing all but trace levels of lead from toys and other child products over the next three years. She also introduced a "batch number" requirement to make it easier to identify hazardous toys, a measure that could reduce future recalls by making it easier to zero in on affected products. Another provision would ban the sale of recalled toys, a practice still allowed.
Klobuchar cosponsored an amendment with Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., to ban industry-paid travel by safety commission members, after reports of dozens of staff trips sponsored by industries with business before the commission.
But in light of the recalls, as well as the $1 million fine recently levied against Reebok, which marketed the lead charm that killed Jarnell Brown, skeptics warn against regulatory overkill.
"Looking at the wave of recalls, it's hard to say the system did not work," said Gattuso, noting that cases of acute lead poisoning like Brown's are exceedingly rare.
Consumer advocates counter that lead -- famously, lead paint chips -- can have adverse effects on children's health at low levels of exposure.
"A lot of the impacts of lead are subtle," Weintraub said.
But it's taken three decades to go from banning lead paint to banning lead products for children.
"We've learned a lot," said James Heuer, the Minneapolis attorney who represented Brown's mother, Juanna Graham, in a recent settlement with Reebok. "What we haven't done is coordinate what we have learned with the everyday realities of the market. Lead paint was banned. Lead jewelry was not."