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Pompeo's cut puts children's safety at risk

  • Published Tuesday, March 8, 2011, at 12:05 a.m.

One would think it hard to find a politician who opposes reducing preventable dangers to children. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, has stepped up to this challenge.

More than 300,000 U.S. children under the age of 5 suffer from lead poisoning. Ingesting lead compromises children's neurological functioning. Their IQ test scores decline. They do poorly in school. They cannot reach the potential with which they were born. The lower functioning and health effects of lead poisoning in children cost the country more than $43 billion a year, according to one study cited by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

There is hardly a better case for rules that safeguard ordinary people than getting rid of sources of child exposure to lead.

The campaign against lead poisoning has been going on for at least a generation. We have outlawed lead-based paints in residential housing and lead in gasoline. Lead in toys is the next frontier.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, passed in 2008, requires all toys to be tested for lead and orders the Consumer Product Safety Commission to design an information-collection system to let parents report their experiences on a database open to the public. The database would alert consumers to possible dangers and spur toymakers to comply quickly to avoid being written up.

Unlike concentrated outbreaks of food poisoning, lead poisoning from toys happens all over the country. And children experience symptoms only gradually, further dissipating awareness of the problem. The database would bring together information that otherwise would be suffered in silence.

To protect manufacturers from spiteful and irresponsible charges, the new system would allow toymakers the time to respond to any claims they wished to refute. The agency deemed the reporting system to be a crucial adjunct to the time- consuming process of getting all toy manufacturers, at home and abroad, to subject their toys to third-party testing.

Pompeo objects to this database. Through a rider to the continuing resolution on the budget, now moving through Congress, he seeks to withhold funding for its implementation.

The irony of this particular attack on improving safeguards for children is that it is exactly the sort of regulation that skeptics of big government should love. It is designed to accomplish its objectives by placing responsibility on the manufacturers themselves (to have their products inspected by independent laboratories) and on consumers (by giving them access to a forum to share their experiences). In short, it improves the market structure for toys with minimal government involvement.

The reporting system would join a family of regulatory policies — such as warnings on cigarette packs, ingredient labels on prepared food products, and posting of health department inspection results in restaurant windows — that work by providing information on which consumers can exercise judgment.

Pompeo says he is concerned that toymakers might be subject to spiteful or mischievous attacks, but this concern has to be weighed against the benefits of a forum that would gather information on dangerous toys from every corner of the country. One would think Pompeo should appreciate a regulatory approach that has such a light touch, as should the parents of the more than 30,000 children under the age of 5 who reside in his congressional district.

Michael Lipsky is a distinguished senior fellow at Demos, a public policy research and advocacy organization based in New York City.

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