Product Liability

Regulating China: CPSC’s first overseas office to halt dangerous U.S.-bound products

If anything good has come out of all the toxic Chinese drywall that severely damaged thousands of U.S. homes and rendered them unlivable, it’s that this extensive, costly, ill-timed disaster has underscored the need for better U.S. regulation and oversight at the source. Hoping to ebb the flow of defective and dangerous consumer products to the United States, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is on its way to opening its first overseas office in China.

Last year alone, the CPSC announced recalls of 220 Chinese-made products ranging from toys containing dangerous levels of lead paint or small parts that could choke children, to cadmium-laden jewelry, counterfeit electronics, defective clothing, and of course, toxic drywall. Traditionally, the CPSC tells U.S. companies responsible for distributing hazardous foreign products to voluntarily recall them and provide refunds or replacements. But while it’s easy enough to recall a defective crib, recalling tons of drywall that has already been installed in thousands of homes is not.

Complicating the matter further is the attitude adopted by some Chinese manufacturers of the drywall, who insist they should not be held accountable for claims against their products in American courts. Such companies treat distance and political borders as immunity against their responsibility in producing cheaply made and poorly designed consumer products. They are often successful, too, because the CPSC lacks the authority to force foreign manufacturers to recall defective products and replace or reimburse consumers.

Meanwhile, trade between the U.S. and China continues to grow. According to CPSC Director Inez Tenenbaum, her agency chose to establish a satellite office in China because that country is the world’s top exporter. “To give you an overview of why China is so important to the CPSC, 45 percent of all consumer products sold in the U.S. come from China and Hong Kong – 45 percent. In terms of toys, 90 percent of all toys sold in America come from China and Hong Kong,” she said.

Previous scandals involving massive recalls of Chinese-made dog and cat food loaded with toxic melamine and toothpaste made with diethylene glycol, a thickening agent used in antifreeze and as a cheaper substitute for the sweetener glycerin, prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to open its first foreign office in China in November 2008.

“By having a proactive preventive posture, we can reduce the number of recalls and keep our consumers safe, and also prevent the loss of revenue and damage to a manufacturer’s brand,” Tennenbaum said.