Consumer Reports

Rejected by U.S., unsafe goods go abroad

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The tubular metal bunk beds were prone to collapse. Consumers reported at least 150 incidents and several injuries. The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued three recalls, the last in July 2001. The agency warned American consumers to discard or destroy the beds.

Constance Jones, of Philadelphia, and her daughters were among the injured when Kishia, then 12, in the top bunk, fell on Jones and 17-year-old Charon, in the bottom bunk. Charon was hospitalized. “The metal piece broke,” Jones says of the incident, which she says occurred in the early 1990s. “It wasn’t welded together right.”

The company that imported the beds, Rosalco of Jeffersonville, Ind., later went out of business. But the story doesn’t end there. While the defective bunk beds were being recalled in the U.S., Rosalco sent at least two shipments to El Salvador and Ecuador, with CPSC approval. Under little-known provisions of U.S. product-safety law, it was all perfectly legal.

You may have thought that dangerous household products that are stopped at U.S. ports or discovered on store shelves are either repaired or destroyed. But millions of hazardous products, including toys, cribs, electrical goods, and flammable clothing, have been gathered up and sent abroad. Here are some examples:

• Wellmax extension cords were shipped to Panama in 2001 after nearly a million of them were recalled in the U.S. because their undersized wires could overheat and cause a fire. The CPSC notified Panamanian officials about the danger but had no authority to stop their exportation. In July 2004 we found some of the defective cords for sale over the Internet, for “export only,” by Wellmax, an importer in Santa Fe Springs, Calif.

• Balloon-tongue “Zapper” toys were exported to the Dominican Republic in 2001, after 835,000 distributed by eight toy companies in the U.S. were recalled because children could inhale the balloons or choke. In August 2004 we found them still being sold in a party-goods store in Santiago, Dominican Republic.

• More than 500 flammable girls’ and women’s chenille sweaters were shipped to Israel and Japan in 1999. They failed U.S. flammability standards and would burn faster than newspaper if ignited, according to a CPSC recall notice. (The company, BCBG Max Azria, was fined for trying to sell some of the recalled sweaters to employees at its company store in California.)

Laws differ among countries; what is banned in the U.S. may be legal somewhere else. But some experts have said that allowing unsafe goods to be re-exported gives manufacturers less incentive to meet U.S. standards in the first place. Moreover, in a global economy, vigorous trade means that what goes around comes around. Commerce in dangerous products ultimately threatens all consumers.

Yet the export of unsafe products is a practice so obscure that the current and former heads of the CPSC say they know little about it. Ann Brown, commission chairwoman from 1994-2001, says she didn’t focus on the issue but added, “Anything that is not good enough for the United States should not be sent abroad.” Hal Stratton, the current chairman, asked, “Has this happened since I’ve been around? I don’t know of any countries or consumers who have complained about that. I think it is a serious issue. I think it’s something we probably need to look at.”

Where they go 

When a product intended for sale in the U.S. violates a mandatory safety standard and a manufacturer or exporter wants to ship it abroad, that party is required to notify the CPSC. The commission staff rarely says no.

More than 900 times between 1994 and 2004, products that violated mandatory federal safety standards were exported, according to commission records. But that probably understates the total number of dangerous exports. Since 1990, records show, the CPSC cited another 22,000 products for safety violations. They include items recalled, stopped at ports, or subject to other enforcement actions. We don’t know how many of those products were exported.

Most exports approved by the CPSC are intended for return to the manufacturers, the agency says, mainly in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, thus holding them accountable for fixing problems.

But not all these exports make it to their claimed destination. In a ruse known as port shopping, substandard imports that Customs turns away from one U.S. port can enter the country through another port. “If you say, ‘We won’t take it but we’ll let you take it back to where it came from,’ they will take it out 12 miles into international waters and they can turn it around and bring it in through another port, maybe under another broker,” says Brian Monks, director of anticounterfeiting for Underwriters Laboratories. The practice is one reason UL destroys goods that violate its trademark, as allowed under intellectual propertylaws.

In our analysis of a sample of shipping data from American ports, we could not verify that many unsafe products destined for their country of origin made it there.

Other shipments of products that violate mandatory federal safety standards have been re-exported to third-party countries, including France, Israel, Japan, and countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic, for example, currently has no consumer-protection or product-liability laws, and little capability to inspect products. If children are hurt by such products, there are few records and no liability judgments to haunt manufacturers or importers, says Raul Rodriguez Pereyra, of the Dominican law firm of Guzman Ariza.

Interpreting the law

It wasn’t always so easy for companies to export products that violate mandatory federal safety standards. In the 1970s, during the Carter administration, the CPSC interpreted federal law as generally opposing such exports. But during the Reagan presidency in the 1980s, things changed. CPSC commissioners voted to allow the export of fabrics that fail U.S. flammability standards after the commission lost two court cases. The agency never formally changed its policy against exporting other unsafe products but issued a press release in 1984 saying it reserved the right to make exceptions. Since then, exceptions have totaled hundreds of shipments, export records show.

The law also requires the CPSC to notify countries about incoming shipments that violate mandatory U.S. safety standards. They’re almost never turned away, because countries often have no legal basis for refusing them.

Pushing Back

Developing countries have long complained about the dumping of dangerous products at their docks. “If items are recalled for health or safety reasons, they should not be allowed to be exported,” says Steve Williams, standards officer with the Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards. “I think they should be recalled and destroyed.”

Williams and representatives of other countries are trying to do something about their concerns. Sadie Homer, senior standards officer of Consumers International, in London, says some of the countries are committee members of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which with other groups is developing global safety and performance standards for many products, including secondhand and recalled goods. “The idea of the standard for secondhand products is to put the burden on the country of export,” she says. “You cannot export products that are classified unsafe in your country and just dump them somewhere else.”

U.S. officials also see global standards as the solution. “The greatest hope in your and my lifetime is through international standardization by groups like the ISO,” says CPSC chairman Stratton.

But standards mean little if manufacturers, retailers, importers, and governments don’t enforce them. “The most important thing is to make sure the standards are met,” says Edward Becker, executive director of the Snell Memorial Foundation, which certifies crash helmets.