Consumer Advocate Vigilantes
By Tom Ryan
Fed up with
the government’s apparent struggles to protect public health after two
years of well-publicized recalls, some consumers are taking the role of
regulator into their own hands. Citizens are funding or themselves administrating
checks on toys and other household products with X-ray guns that detect
An article in The
Washington Post noted that blogger Joselyn Saiki and seven friends
near Mountain View, California hired lawyer Jennifer Taggart, also the creator
of the TheSmartMama.com blog, in 2008 to test their household goods and
toys with the gun. Ms. Taggart received $250 per family for fees and
travel costs. She came back in 2009 to visit six other households wanting
2-1/2 hours per family,” said Ms. Saiki, who wound up throwing out 12 items,
including ceramic plates used regularly for meals. “But you start to wonder
about everything and you’re thinking ‘This is my kid, I’ll pay for another
half hour.’ And you’re pulling things out of the closet. Before you know
it, she’s leaving. Then the next birthday, or next holiday comes, and you’re
wondering about all these new toys.”
of “citizen regulators,” according to the Post article, is being fueled
by the X-Ray Flourecence (XRF) Analyzer, a hand-held device for do-it-yourself
testing. Prices range from $17,000 to $35,000, but nonprofit groups have
been buying the guns and holding free toy testing clinics at libraries,
town halls and fire stations around the country. Families can rent them
for $400 a day.
A request by
the consumer product website, zrecommends.com, in November led the Center
for Environmental Health, a nonprofit environmental group in California,
to test an item of infant apparel sold by Target. Finding lead at four
times the legal limit led to a widespread recall.
But in a well-publicized
case, goodguide.com used an XRF gun in finding that Zhu Zhu Pets, one of
this year’s hottest holiday sellers, contained excess levels of antimony,
a heavy metal. The Consumer Product Safety Commission found the item was tested
incorrectly and in compliance.
the founder of goodguide, which has rated about 63,000 consumer products
based on toxic chemicals, said his group should have used the federal test.
But he also said many consumers have become obsessed over safety.
“Four or five
years ago, it was just me and a couple of geeks,” Ms. O’Rourke said. “But
there’s been this transition in the marketplace. It went from the Whole
Foods crowd being concerned about this to the Safeway crowd and now the
Stacy M. Leistner,
a spokesman for the Toy Industry Association, told the Post the
screening guns in many cases were “needlessly alarming parents.” The technology,
she said, “has a place, but it has to be used judiciously.”
Questions: What do you think about consumers inspecting the safety of
products on their own? Is that good or bad for brands and public safety?
What repercussions may develop from any increases in such testing?