Toy-safety crusader targets US standards. He calls product-safety panel's voluntary rules `an absolute fraud'

Some think of him as the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Others call him the Ralph Nader of the nursery. But both groups would agree that Edward M. Swartz -- a product-liability lawyer who announced his 12th annual ``10 worst toys'' list last week -- has raised serious questions about the toy-safety regulations of the Consumer Products Safety Commission.

``The CPSC is lulling people into a false sense of security,'' says Mr. Swartz, laying out the ``dangerous'' toys on an antique table in his downtown Boston office. The products, which he plucked from store shelves across the country, include several with small parts that children can swallow, some with sharp points, and one with warnings only in Japanese. Swartz says they demonstrate that ``CPSC gives the benefit of the doubt to the toy industry -- not the kids.''

``That is not the case at all,'' says CPSC chairman Terrence M. Scanlon. ``The situation is less confrontional because we are working with the industry for voluntary standards. But that doesn't mean that when there is a hazard we don't come down on them. We sampled over 4,000 toys this year -- and recalled 49.'' He adds, ``Take away the media hype [of Swartz's report], and there's not much there.''

This is not just a squabble over the 10 seemingly harmless toys in Swartz's office, however. It is a deep-seated debate over the shifting role of a regulatory agency in an era of deregulation.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader says the CPSC has become virtually powerless. ``When Reagan couldn't abolish it [in 1981], he incapacitated it,'' he says. ``It has gotten worse because of Reagan appointees. It's gone from the glacial state to the state of immobility.''

Mr. Scanlon concedes that the CPSC has scaled back on mandatory toy standards. But he says the change gives the agency greater mobility. Enacting a voluntary standard takes a year or less, he explains, but a mandatory standard usually drags on for about 41/2 years. ``And if a voluntary standard doesn't work,'' he says, ``we can always go the other way.''

``The voluntary standards are an absolute fraud,'' fumes Swartz, author of ``Toys that Don't Care'' (1971). ``The cooperation they're talking about is `Let's get away with the minimum we can to shut up the critics, make it tougher to win a lawsuit, and continue selling the product.' ''

Ann Brown, who chairs the Consumer Affairs Committee of Americans for Democratic Action, agrees that most CPSC action is too little, too late. She cites the case of a baby walker that has been involved in more than 15,000 injuries. ``A voluntary standard is being worked on by the CPSC and the Toy Manufacturers Association, but it still won't be nearly enough,'' Ms. Brown says. ``The CPSC should be anything but reactive, but it has no anticipation of where danger lies.''

Last year, estimates of toy-related injuries climbed from 118,000 to 125,000 after a six-year decline. Neither side invests much significance in that statistic, but both Swartz and Brown suggest that it may relate to CPSC's failure to identify dangerous toys before they get in the hands of children.

That's why the two consumer advocates wish the ``banned toy list'' had not been abandoned in 1975. ``How can you warn about products without naming names?'' Ms. Brown asks. ``The whole burden is on the consumer in the stores and at home.''

Scanlon maintains that the banned toy list was misleading: ``It implied that toys not on the list were totally safe.'' He says he thinks the commission is covering all the necessary bases better without it. ``Our recalls are higher than ever,'' he says. ``We are doing regulatory work, and we are providing the consumer with more information on product safety.''

Two weeks ago, the CPSC intensified its educational efforts when it kicked off the National Holiday Toy Safety Campaign in an event cosponsored by the Toy Manufacturers of America.

One safety commissioner declined to participate. Stuart Statler, the only remaining Carter appointee on the CPSC board, said ``the basic message is fine.'' But he says the agency's effort should focus more on recalling dangerous toys and strengthening the messages on warning labels.

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