Consumer Advocate Vigilantes

Dec 28, 2009
Tom Ryan

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
toxic chemicals.

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 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

“We scheduled
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.”

The emergence
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,, 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, 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.

Dara O’Rourke,
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
Wal-Mart crowd.”

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?

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13 Comments on "Consumer Advocate Vigilantes"

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Ryan Mathews
11 years 4 months ago

The question always comes back to, “What product is totally safe?” The danger is that the consumer groups will be able to detect trace elements of chemicals that, in fact, represent no real threat to anyone. If this kind of movement gained momentum, it could be a real threat to certain brands and even non-branded items. Anyone remember the Alar scare?

Len Lewis
Len Lewis
11 years 4 months ago

I think consumers should be more involved. Carpe Diem. What I object to is another lawyer/ambulance chaser trying to make money off people’s fears.

Doron Levy
Doron Levy
11 years 4 months ago

I guess it’s everyone’s choice how they protect their household and using CSI style equipment to check out the latest offerings from Fisher Price may be a bit much.

I was working for a large pharmacy retailer during the BPA bottle scare and it is not pretty for retailers. Sometimes ‘educated and enlightened’ consumers can create more hype than necessary. There is nothing like a dedicated customer coming into your store and clearing out your shelves of Avent bottles without even asking for help! Customers are not scientists and while I do agree that there must be better controls on merch that comes from Asia, information coming from ‘consumer advocates’ should be taken with a grain of salt (or at least see the printout from the spectrophotometer).

Bernice Hurst
11 years 4 months ago

Funny how it seems more than OK to accept feedback on social networking, etc sites from complete strangers but strangers checking for safety is greeted with scepticism. Imagine clearing the shelves of a store without asking for help…after all our discussions about how hard it is to get help in a store. Actually, what I can see in this story is a great business opportunity for manufacturers of x-ray or whatever guns to reduce price and get one into every home in time for next Christmas. Not to mention a booming market in consultants renting themselves out on an hourly basis.

Gregg London
Gregg London
11 years 4 months ago

I liken this “movement” to that of “user supported” (as in FREE) Product Data. While there are considerable benefits to be gained, my concern is that any “management” of this Data would be subject to error. As such, as we’ve seen with Poison U.P.C. Codes in selected Web Sites, what happens if something is posted “incorrectly,” and causes widespread panic?

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
11 years 4 months ago

Given the number of product recalls, many consumers do not feel confident that the watchdog agencies, individuals, governments, or company representatives are doing an effective job. Therefore, many of them apparently are taking matters into their own hands. However, who knows how effective the tools are, what levels are “safe,” and whether individuals or products are doing an effective job? The individual initiatives demonstrate that there is consumer concern that needs to be addressed.

Bob Phibbs
11 years 4 months ago

Ridiculous. The toy regs in place now are too stringent and over reaching. Probably due to such vigilantes.

Devangshu Dutta
Devangshu Dutta
11 years 4 months ago
Despite good intentions on the retailer’s part and the humongous bureaucracy in the supply chain, if product safety compliance is incomplete and if consumers feel insecure, then they will provide the wake-up call any which way they can. We may decry the paranoia, but let’s also consider the increase and concentration of risk due to factors such as:1) Vague responsibility for unsafe products due to the nature of the current supply chain2) Extreme focus on factory costs leading to corners being cut in the supply base3) Long lead-times between the buying decision and actual delivery, with multiple hand-offs (and sometimes, meanwhile, people changing jobs and responsibility)4) Significantly larger consumption and disposal volumes than earlier generations5) “Strategic sourcing relationships” leading to concentration of sourcing volumes–if one product line has been produced with unsafe toxins by a vendor, the likelihood of others being handled the same way are higher as well. However the industry may feel about it, I think consumer advocates have the steering wheel on this one. Unless government outlaws ‘unapproved’ testing…but I wonder how… Read more »
Herb Sorensen
11 years 4 months ago

Consumers can test for pregnancy, blood sugar, and a wide variety of other life-and-death issues. And “consumer advocates” have been hauling stuff to the lab for decades–including Consumer Reports. So this is an interesting report, but nothing new here conceptually.

I started my career many years ago in clinical chemistry, and then with a food lab. From time to time a consumer would show up with something they wanted tested. Usually the price dampened their interest. My first exposure to this type of thing occurred while I was in graduate school. A consumer showed up at the department of biochemistry and nutrition with a cake she thought her husband had poisoned. There was a professor that usually got these referrals. He came into the office where the woman was, with her cake. After listening to her story and looking at the cake, he got out a knife, cut himself a piece, and ate it! (Insensitive lout.)

Carol Spieckerman
11 years 4 months ago

Great context around test-it-yourself movement, Herb…and priceless let-them-eat-cake companion story–ha!

All kidding aside, what a can of worms this is! Will home testing be admissible in courts of law and if so, which ones? Much of this is being driven by concern (paranoia?) over the global supply chain and exacerbated by a few high-profile product recalls. It will be interesting to see where accountability ultimately falls as traceability and transparency reach new levels of sophistication.

Warren Thayer
11 years 4 months ago

I’m okay with this. The government has booted this enough times so that many of us don’t trust it anymore. Not entirely sure private groups will do better, but some will gain credibility and be useful.

Craig Sundstrom
11 years 4 months ago

I sometimes think government approval should be needed to have children, but barring that I pray crackpotedness isn’t hereditary.

Where was I? Oh yes, is this good or bad? Almost entirely bad, with the only real beneficiaries being lawyers and the manufacturers of the guns (who tests THEM?) Too many people in the country already worry about overblown dangers and pseudo “crisii”, this can only worsen the problem.

Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson
11 years 4 months ago
I’m delighted to see consumers being proactive about monitoring their own health and welfare and that of their loved ones. And while I agree that not all consumers have the knowledge and skills to correctly conduct their own toy safety inspections, I’m pretty sure that isn’t going to stop a concerned parent from “learning on the job” so they can protect their offspring. The alternative is simply no longer palatable. What brands need to do is recognize that this is a consumer behavior that’s here to stay. Across consumer lifestyles – e.g., toy safety, hospital and doctor ratings, food safety, green claims, locally sourced product – consumers are taking steps to fill the trust gap that exists between them and brands, politicians, the media, the healthcare industry and others. What smart brands need to do is find ways to be more trustworthy, including being more transparent, allowing for consumer input and feedback (and actually acting on it), and developing real solutions to alleviate safety and other concerns. Brands should only expect that this type of… Read more »

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