For Inez Tenenbaum, who President Obama appointed as the new chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, dealing with toy manufacturing in Asia is a long way from her native South Carolina -- where she spent most of her career as a lawyer, politician and education official. But that's where she is today, in Hong Kong, at the start of a two-week trip that will also take her to Singapore and Vietnam.
It's a chance to define her new role as the top cop for product safety and a full immersion into an arena that has been littered with recalls in recent years for rampant violations of rules limiting how much lead could be in children's products, from huge mainstream sellers like Dora the Explorer bath toys to dollar store trinkets. As much as Tenenbaum is there to learn and to introduce herself, she's also there to firmly convey the message that as of Aug. 14, U.S. laws will have such tight limits on phthalates and lead that there's not much point in manufacturing with them any longer.
Tenenbaum has a chance to set a tone for product safety none of her predecessors could. In addition to the lower limits on lead and phthlalates, the penalties for breaking safety rules of all sorts will be far harsher -- escalating from a maximum of less than $2 million to up to $15 million. This is her debut on the world stage, where her folksy way of speaking in a distinctive Southern drawl will likely make her message easier to listen to, while instilling a degree of intimidation at the same time.
She'll meet with Chinese customs inspectors about better monitoring products that are being shipped to the U.S., with Vietnamese officials about that country's growing role as an exporter of toys and clothing, and to representatives of the toy industry gathering at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Singapore.
The U.S. government and the Toy Industry Association are paying for the event, which also has the support of the governments of Chile, China, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam
A more direct dialog with the Chinese is planned for October. But already there are signs of hope, CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said. The number of toy recalls is on the decline, he said, a welcome drop after two years filled with recalls due to lead content and serious injuries and deaths from toys with tiny magnets that came loose. "We are seeing good progress," he said.
Lead, which has been linked to brain damage in children, has been used in painting toys as well as in the manufacture of the toys themselves. Given the safer alternatives, Wolfson said the message to the manufacturers is clear and simple: "Get the lead out."
The bottom line, Wolfson said, is Tenenbaum wants to let toy and government officials know the rules and be clear that they will have to play by them.
Wolfson said she also wants to let government and industry officials know that her tenure will not be one of surprises, but rather a candid, open process.