- Associated Press - Sunday, February 27, 2011

It’s something Nikki Johns wishes had been around before her infant son died in a drop-side crib: A centralized federal database of people’s safety complaints about thousands of products, from baby gear to household appliances.

“If I had known there had been children killed in drop-sides, it would have swayed me against them,” said Mrs. Johns, who lost her 9-month-old son, Liam, in a faulty crib that came apart at the side rail and trapped the baby one night after his mom went to bed at their home in Citrus Heights, Calif., nearly six years ago.

Mrs. Johns, other parents who have tragically lost children, and consumer advocates are eagerly awaiting March 11, the formal launch date for the government database SaferProducts.gov, where people can share complaints of injury or worse from everyday products such as cribs, highchairs, space heaters and toasters.

But the database, overseen by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, isn’t universally popular. Manufacturers and some members of Congress fear such a “crowd-sourced” website will be bloated with bogus, inaccurate or misleading reports. One of those lawmakers, freshman Rep. Mike Pompeo, Kansas Republican., sponsored an amendment approved in the House recently to withhold additional funding for the database, which could bring the project to a halt. Prospects for his amendment in the Democrat-led Senate aren’t clear.

Anyone can submit a “report of harm” to the SaferProducts.gov database. They aren’t required to have firsthand knowledge of the alleged injury or potential defect that could lead to injury. The reports are reviewed by commission staff to make sure basic information is provided — name, contact information, product, injury and approximate date — though personal information will be scrubbed before the report goes on the database. The manufacturer is informed of the complaint and has 10 days to respond before the report is made public. CPSC says reports that have missing or clearly untrue information won’t be published.

Plenty of safeguards exist to ensure accuracy, insists CPSC Commissioner Bob Adler, a Democrat and database supporter. Not only will manufacturers be allowed to publish any rebuttal along with the complaint, Mr. Adler said the commission also will remove or attempt to correct any information found to be false.

“A report of harm comes in with a set of allegations and then the manufacturer is free to respond as fully as they wish,” Mr. Adler said in an interview. “The consumer gets to be the ultimate judge instead of having the government be the data nanny.”

Mr. Pompeo and other opponents say that’s not enough to prevent false information about a product from showing up in the database, damaging its sales and misleading consumers.

“The agency’s rule would require it to post false information about products, which would actually steer consumers away from safe products and toward less-safe products,” he said. Before the database goes public, Mr. Pompeo wants stronger rules about who can file injury reports and the kind of details they must provide in order to guarantee the accuracy of the information.

The U.S. government has a similar auto safety database, also available to consumers online, that describes people’s safety complaints in extraordinary detail. It is the government’s principal early warning system intended to alert federal investigators to signs of looming safety problems.

Yet despite efforts by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to review consumer complaints before they are memorialized in the government’s database, an AP review of 750,000 records last year found that the data included complaints about slick pavement during snow, inconsiderate mechanics, paint chips, sloshing gasoline during fill-ups, potholes, dim headlights, bright headlights, inaccurate dashboard clocks and windshield wipers that streak.

Another dispute involves the CPSC database’s cost.

The database was ordered by Congress as part of a 2008 product safety law aimed at removing lead and other dangers from toys, and last April the commission estimated it would cost about $20 million. That estimate included a major technology upgrade of antiquated computer systems that the agency said at the time was essential to providing a foundation for the searchable database.

Last week, however, at a House hearing on consumer safety issues, CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum, a Democrat, put the total cost for the database to date at only $3 million.

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