WASHINGTON - A partial ban on controversial plastic-softening chemicals called phthalates has been agreed on as part of a bill to revamp consumer product safety, lawmakers involved in the negotiations said on Monday.
The legislation also would sharply cut the amount of lead allowed in toys and other products while increasing funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), an agency much criticized after millions of toys, mostly made in China, were recalled last year.
The ban on phthalates, which some believe can cause abnormal reproductive development in children, was one of the most hotly debated items considered by members of the House and Senate who hammered out the final version of the legislation.
Three types of phthalates would be permanently banned in children's toys and child care items, except for minute amounts, while three others would be temporarily banned pending further study.
"The compromise on phthalates is a significant victory for families, because the ban goes into effect before the research review is completed," said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women and Families, a consumer group. "Congress put children's safety first."
But the American Chemistry Council criticized the phthalate restrictions. "There is no scientific basis for Congress to restrict phthalates from toys and children's products," the industry group said.
The bill, which still needs to be voted on, also would mandate national safety standards for all-terrain vehicles, linked to hundreds of deaths each year, as well as set standards for toys.
It would authorize an increase in the CPSC's annual budget from its current $80 million to $118 million starting in fiscal 2010 and growing to $136 million over five years.
"The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been a neglected agency for too many years, but this legislation puts an end to that neglect," said a statement by Sen. Daniel Inouye, an Hawaii Democrat and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
The legislation also includes whistle-blower protections, third-party testing requirements for certain children's products, and gives CPSC the authority to inspect manufacturers' proprietary labs.
In addition, the bill would increase maximum criminal penalties for violations.
"This reauthorization gives the CPSC more teeth and a deeper bite, and makes it dramatically more certain that toys aren't tested for safety by kids on the living room floor before they're tested in a lab by experts," said Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican and ranking minority member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Senate and House members have been meeting in conference for several weeks to resolve differences between two bills that aimed to overhaul the CPSC. House members passed their legislation in December, and the Senate passed its bill in March, that included a ban on phthalates.
The conferees agreed the legislation should not preempt state regulations and requirements.
Mattel Inc (MAT.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), RC2 Corp (RCRC.O: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), and other companies were forced to pull millions of their toys from shelves last year, mainly due to excessive lead content in paint.
The trend continued into 2008, with total recalls up 22 percent so far this year compared to that same period in 2007, according to an analysis of CPSC data by a group of consumer advocate organizations including Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America.
"We applaud the conference committee for reconciling their differences and coming up with an extremely strong and consumer protective bill," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel for the CFA. (Editing by Carol Bishopric)
© 2008 Reuters