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Federal toy and product safety database delayed

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usprod_safety Several weeks back I wrote about how this easy-to-use database  over at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration where you can check if your peanut butter is salmonella free. But if a parent wants to find out if that Thomas and Friends wooden railway the kid has been hankering for is free of lead paint or  easy-to-swallow parts, you won't have much luck over at the Consumer Product Safety Commission--yet. The agency is over  two months late with a required report to Congress on plans to build a new searchable database for its website that will contain information on reports of hazardous toys and other products. With this new database in place, parents should be able to quickly discover whether any other parent out there--or health professional, or child care center operator--has reported a safety problem with a toy, long before there is an official recall.

Last summer, largely in response to public uproar following the recall of millions of lead-contaminated popular toys imported from China--Big Birds and Elmos and Thomas the Tank Engines among them--Congress approved the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. As part of that law, the agency was required to produce, within 180 days, or by February 10, a detailed plan to Congress for the new database. Once the report is submitted, the agency then has 18 months to make it available to the public.

Yet February 10 came and went without the agency submitting the plan, with the agency claiming it had not received the funding to work on it. With the passage of the 2009 appropriations bill, Jacquie Elder, deputy executive director  staff now says the money is in and that staff are "beginning our work on developing the plan for the database." As the law is written, every day in delay for the submission of the database plan to Congress also translates into a day of delay before the database is required to be made available to the public.

Nancy Nord, the acting chairman of the commission and a Bush appointee, was notoriously hostile to the idea of the database when it was originally debated on Congress. At a May 2008 speech before the National Retail Federation, she reportedly told attendees to fight the database provision. Nord had testified earlier that the database requirement would be too costly. In March, Sen. Dick Durbin sent Nord a blistering letter, saying  "Recent comments you have made in the press...show your continued resistance to modernizing your agency and addressing the genuine public concern over unsafe products." Nord has come under fire in the past for taking trips on the dime of the industries she regulates. The CPSC is also hamstrung because one of three commissioner slots has been vacant for some three years.

The new database is required to go beyond information currently available to consumers by requiring disclosure of any reports of harm that are submitted by consumers; local, state, or federal government; health care providers; child service providers; and public safety groups. You'll be able to find out the types of injuries that have occurred, where they occurred, and other  information typically now available only through a formal Freedom of Information Act request. Manufacturers will be identified, which ought to make it possible to mash that information up with lobbying and campaign finance information.

However, there's no explicit language  in the law requiring that the raw data underlying the database be made available to the public in a format such as XML or a text file. Offering the data in this format would make it easy for programmers to mash it up with other information, enhancing its reach. Imagine, for example,  maps showing where product injuries are occuring. Or an application that helps you check out toy safety on your cell phone. Every day the CPSC runs late on getting this data out to the public is a day when that information could have helped prevent new injuries.