Power to the Consumer: Searchable Database of Product Safety Complaints Soon to be Online

Trying to keep your family safe from dangerous products is extraordinarily challenging. You can follow product recalls as millions of consumers do, but many of those aren't issued until months after a hazard has been identified, thanks to a sometimes clunky legal process that requires corporate cooperation.

As much energy as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission spends trying to alert consumers to hazardous products, an alarming amount of the information it possesses is kept secret. Now a window into some of this dark space is about to open and shine light on dangers we don't yet know about.

Barring any of the light-dimming changes being sought by two CPSC commissioners, Americans will be able to see what others have reported as problems. The CPSC is about to finalize the details of Congressionally-mandated searchable database that will catalog consumer product safety complaints and make them available to the public. (See CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum, in an interview with Consumer Ally earlier this year, talk a bit about the database in the video below.)

Releasing all this information is a frightening and annoying prospect to many companies, who fear tarnished reputations. But it's a gift to safety-minded consumers. Would you rather find out that the crib you intend to buy for your new baby or grandchild had ten people complain about how the hardware falls off before you've made the purchase, or months after the baby's been sleeping in it?

Finally getting this thing online has been no easy task in the highly-charged political climate in our nation's capital. CPSC Commissioners Nancy Nord and Anne Northup want further restrictions on such things as whose reports can be included in the database (no lawyers acting on a victim's behalf, thank you). Northup refers to the database as "notorious" and has said manufacturers and consumers alike will struggle with inaccurate information.

"...The proposed rule will create a database that fails to reinforce responsible corporate behavior and harms good companies indiscriminately," she wrote in opposition to how the database program will be handled.

Traditionally, Nord and Northup are on the losing side of 3-2 votes, but they're not going down quietly.

Companies whose products are the subject of reports from consumers included in the database are to be given ten business days after the CPSC sends them the report to respond. Their response would be included in the database, allowing consumers to see both the complaint and an explanation, if a company chooses to make one.

The names of those complaining and their contact information must be included in the complaint (no anonymous submissions are allowed) but the names and personal information will not be published.

Consumer advocates have been waiting for a long time to get this one bit of information into public view. It's still a well-kept secret, for instance, whether any particular recall has been a success or failure. Why? To protect companies from what?

"Now, consumers only learn of deaths or injuries in products after they are recalled. Think of the recent Graco stroller recall. This means in some cases like this one, parents are using a deadly product for years – with no way to learn of the risks," Nancy Cowles, executive director of the safety advocacy group Kids In Danger, told Consumer Ally. "Had the database been live, some parents would have found the incidents while researching the product and probably chosen not to buy it. But even more importantly, Graco and CPSC may have acted sooner on the recall if they knew the incidents were public."

Companies will still make huge profits after this database is made public. Is it wrong for a handful of large and powerful corporations to perhaps take complaints a bit more seriously when they come in instead of choosing to dismiss them until hundreds are hurt or innocent children lose their lives?

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