s the world and our lives fill up with more and more consumer products, the risk of being hurt by those that are badly designed, poorly made or carelessly used rises astronomically. The thousands of types of objects run the gamut from hoverboards, oven cleaners and children’s toys to fireworks, elevators, bookcases that wobble and fall down and more – maiming and killing victims of all ages.
Most countries have state bodies that set standards, supervise and warn the public. In Israel, the Economy Ministry and the Israel Standards Institution institute policy and set standards for products, while BETEREM – Safe Kids Israel, the non-profit center for children’s health and safety – took on the role of warning about dangers that threaten youngsters, educating the public and lobbying for change. It was founded by pediatrics Prof. Yehuda Danon in 1995 at Petah Tikva’s Schneider Children’s Medical Center and is the only organization in Israel to exclusively address child safety. In 2003, it was officially recognized by the Israel government as the leading organization and a professional leader of child safety issues in Israel.
But where were they all when I saw in a Jerusalem babies’ clothing store not long ago selling socks for six-month-old infants with decorative fake pearls sewn at the top with ordinary thread – a perfect recipe for choking? Only after being threatened with complaints to the authority did the owner agree to take them off the shelves and promise never to sell them. Too many dangerous products fall through the cracks.
In the US, there is the independent Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), an independent agency of the federal government that is located in Bethesda, Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. The commission has the responsibility to promote the safety of consumer products by addressing “unreasonable risks” of injury; developing uniform safety standards (some mandatory, some through a voluntary standards process); and conducting research into product-related illness and injury. It bans dangerous consumer products, issues recalls of existing products, sets down safety requirements and studies potential hazards posed by products on the market.
ESTABLISHED 45 years ago through the Consumer Product Safety Act, the commission reports to Congress and the US president. It can have as many as five commissioners nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate for staggered seven-year terms.
The CPSC regulates the sale and manufacture of more than 15,000 different consumer products, from cribs to all-terrain vehicles. But other federal agencies have control of other products, such as cars regulated by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; guns by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and medications and cosmetics by the US Food and Drug Administration. The situation is complicated by the fact that the 50 states have different rules and regulations regarding consumer products.
With “only” 550 employees and a $123 million annual budget, it still has plenty to do. Since it is a relatively small body, with just 80 scientists and engineers in the field, the CPSC tries to work with consumer organizations and companies to improve product safety.
One of the current commissioners, veteran lawyer Marietta Robinson – who was appointed by then-president Barack Obama to a seat on the CPSC, visited Israel recently. Her term is due to expire in October of this year, as she is unlikely as a Democrat to get a renewal from Republican President Donald Trump.
“I agree that there should be no politics involved in consumer protections. We are here to protect the public,” she said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post
Robinson has practiced law for 35 years, handling a wide variety of complicated litigation cases for both plaintiffs and defendants. She was a fellow of the International Society of Barristers and its first woman president for two years. A graduate of the University of Michigan at Flint and the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, Robinson also taught as an adjunct professor at several law schools over the years, most recently at Duke University. She unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Michigan Supreme Court in 2000 and ran for Michigan attorney-general two years later but withdrew from the race.
“I was last here as a child after the Six Day War and still remember it, and I have had a wonderful visit this time. One of the reasons I chose to go to Israel was the way BETEREM collects data on accidents. We at the commission have data on product- related injuries for statistical purposes only. We constantly look for ways to improve. We are missing a lot of information, such as that from 6,000 hospital emergency rooms; we have only 100 that were statistically selected.”
Robinson added that Israel is “much smaller, but BETEREM is doing a much better job in this realm, such as when a person is hurt by products and hospitalized. We in the US don’t know what caused the injury and what the outcome is. BETEREM is also doing a great job educating medical professionals and dangers. They’ve taken our system but kicked it up a notch. We also really appreciate the videos they made, such as showing how a pizza gets baked in the back seat of a vehicle in the hot summer, an illustration how leaving small children locked in a car can quickly kill them.”
Robinson said she was very interested hearing during her visit of the idea of the Post, first suggested to then deputy health minister and now Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman and rejected by him on the spot of a cheap, easy way to help prevent adults from leaving young children in cars. The idea, of stickers on the inside of driver’s doors showing a young child saying: “Don’t leave me for even a moment!” is now being implemented by the ministry itself after United Hatzalah printed and distributed 500,000 stickers on its own in the past eight years.
She said she also collected a lot of other good ideas during visits to Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the Israel Standards Institution and the Israel Chamber of Commerce.
BETEREM director-general Orly Silbinger commented that she was very pleased to meet Robinson during her visit “for mutual learning about child and product safety. There are many subjects that we have in common, so exchanging information is very important. We regarded it as vital to present our national system for data on child safety and injuries in Israel and its use to promote safety and safe products for children. We hope to continue cooperating with the CPSC in the future.”
One of the things that BETEREM can learn from the CPSC is its consumer hotline through which consumers can report products they believe are unsafe products or that have already caused injuries. If so, I could have complained about the baby socks with the fake pearls.
BETEREM issues an annual report on child deaths due to accidents on the road, at home and at leisure spots. The CPSC releases an annual report to the president and congress, available on line, on product-associated deaths and injuries and the economic cost of such injuries. It collects mortality data from the states, reviewing some 8,000 death certificates each year to identify unintentional product-related deaths.
“The CPSC purchases death certificates that have a high probability of consumer product involvement,” according to the latest report issued in 2016. “Because of resource restraints, we cannot purchase all product-related death certificates, and because the death certificates we purchase sometimes fail to identify the products involved, the total number of actual product-related deaths may be higher than the number we report.” One wonders why the federal government does not require the states to hand over copies of death certificates that involve accidental deaths rather than require the commission to purchase samples of them.
Surprisingly, the latest report lists the number of deaths from October 2012 to the end of September 2013 that were connected to the use of certain consumer products. These range from 60 from child nursery equipment, supplies and toys and 1,289 from sports and recreational equipment and activities to 62 from heating, cooling and ventilating appliances, 111 from yard and garden equipment and 1,064 from home furnishings and fixtures. The figures seem inordinately low.
The estimates of injuries in all 50 states connected to consumer products that were treated in hospital emergency departments from October 2014 to the end of September 2015 seem more accurate; they include 4.2 million injuries from sports and recreational activities and equipment, 241,000 from toys, 433,000 from yard and garden equipment and 4.3 million from home structures and construction materials.
Estimates of the annual costs of treating accident victims hurt by consumer products are staggering – $188 million a year from sports equipment to $183 million from home furnishings and fixtures and $297 million from home structures and construction materials.
MOST ACCIDENTS due to consumer products are preventable, she continued. “Each state has to look at every death of a child and explain what happened. The US National Center for Fatality Review and Prevention only recently added the question of whether a product was involved.”
Israelis are well aware of the accident dangers of children as young as five or six riding on electronic hoverboards, even though the law requires that the user be at least 16 and wear a helmet. Today, they are sold for under NIS 700, and while signs in the stores note the age limit, many younger children can be seen on the sidewalks and even the streets at much younger ages. Numerous children have suffered severe injuries when falling off hoverboards and some have even died.
According to BETEREM, since 2008, 36 Israeli children have died in accidents involving conventional and electric bikes, skateboards, hoverboards, scooters and other smallwheeled objects. In 2016, seven died from them, and so far this year, five children have already died in such accidents.
Robinson reported that in the US, even though there is no state law that prohibits using hoverboards under 16 and requiring the wearing of protective helmets, the main danger they posed is from exploding and causing fires at homes when their batteries are attached to electric current overnight. Two US children recently died from the explosion of hoverboards’ lithium batteries, she said.
Electric bikes, which are increasingly ridden by Israeli children and adults, are not used so much in the US, she said. “We stayed in a hotel near Tel Aviv’s beach and saw them all over the place. It’s much better for youngsters to walk!”
Other risks in the US are portable generators that, when used in bad weather, are placed in an open window and produce carbon monoxide, which poisons residents. There are also strong magnets that children swallow that can cause severe injury to the gastrointestinal tract and even deaths. Many Americans do amateur home carpentry work and when using saws and other equipment, they lose fingers. Furniture that is not attached to walls often can tip over on children. Liquid laundry pods that are colorful and look like soft drinks to children and the demented elderly are sold in the US and Israel and cause poisonings.
“While we can initiate criminal prosecution of companies, we almost never do. It’s best to get dangerous products off the market. Israel tries to intercept dangerous objects before they are put on the market,” the commissioner said.
“We have mandatory standards mostly for products used by children, such as baby cribs, strollers and toys.
For other products, if there are no mandatory standards, there are voluntary standards. Setting mandatory ones can take a long time, as the public as well as the companies are invited to comment. If we find a product at a port that we think is dangerous, we can prevent its entry, but most of the standards are voluntary, and if proven to have been violated, we have rigorous recall procedures; most of these are made in Southeast Asia.”
Israel doesn’t manufacture a lot of consumer products, but “many ideas come from Israelis, who are so innovative,” she concluded. “We wanted to talk to those who developed products and tell them who we are so they can think of safety measures when they develop them.”