Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute
The Helmet Update by Email
Volume 28, #2, February 18, 2010
All issues index
February 17 was "CPSC Day" at ICPHSO, an organization of product safety advocates, manufacturers and regulators. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is important to helmet standards in a number of ways.
CPSC staff has new energy, shows new enthusiasm and appreciates the added resources they are receiving at last. They are making good progress in plowing through the mound of requirements dumped on them by the 2008 CPSIA legislation. The agency has a full compliment of five Commissioners for the first time in 20 years, and they have even been able to reach consensus on some issues. Morale has clearly improved.
The CPSC staff comments were mostly off the record as "my own opinion, not cleared by the Commission" but some interesting points emerged relevant to helmets:
- There are new Rules coming soon: lab audit procedures, accreditation, procedures for withdrawing accreditation, third party testing rules, a definition of children's products and a definition of toy and childcare articles for phthalate limits. That could affect how standards are applied to child helmets.
- Longer term, more Rules are coming in the field of toxic chemicals and metals. They are worried about the substitutes when a substance is banned (cadmium for lead) and focused on the total content and the soluble migrated content that can be absorbed by a user. There is concern about the unknowns of nano products, including nanosilver, used in some anti-bacterial helmet pads.
- There is more willingness to review voluntary standards from ASTM and others that are not working well to keep non-compliant product off the market, to see if a CPSC Rule is needed. That could close the loophole that permits skate, ski and other helmets to be sold here that do not meet the ASTM standard.
- There are now 236 accredited test labs worldwide, including 24 accredited to test youth helmets. They recently discovered a few cigarette lighter labs falsifying data, and some lab personnel were prosecuted and are currently awaiting sentencing. They make it clear that lab fraud will be "dealt with harshly." Fortunately, helmet labs in the US have not been known for that, but the prospect of jail time will keep lab techs on their toes.
- CPSC is focusing for most products on date of manufacture, not date of import. Most new standards will not apply to inventory. Their helmet standard is over a decade old.
- Tracking labels will assume greater importance in recalls, and some industry groups are developing a common format. Helmets have uniform standard stickers but not uniform tracking labels.
- CPSC has stepped up surveillance activities. There are now 14 port inspectors who have access to manifest data before a shipment arrives in the port. And they use field office staff to supplement. They are conducting Internet surveillance and sending notices to try to keep people from selling recalled products on Ebay and elsewhere. There is an email address for outing violators: firstname.lastname@example.org. They also send Letters of Advice to manufacturers, who usually pull back product to avoid a recall. They have recently used field office personnel to do blitz inspections of several products (pools, cribs, mattresses) and will do more. That could eventually mean they will do more helmet testing.
- The new pool and spa legislation contained funding for enforcement and education, so will get lots of emphasis. A new mandate that includes the resources to pursue it is rare and produces action.
- CPSC now gets 20,000 reports of product problems annually from Wal-Mart, Sears, Amazon, Target, Home Depot and two unidentified manufacturers. They get a total of 50,000 reports every year, but can only investigate about 10 percent of them, so 90 percent get some sort of preliminary evaluation but no follow up. Many helmet recalls result from a competitor informing CPSC of a sub-standard model.
- Product reports currently go into internal databases. In March 2011 CPSC will have a public database up at www.saferproducts.gov where consumers can report problems and manufacturers can respond. The agency expects it will increase pressure on them to respond to more of the complaints, and will change the way consumers research purchases. Helmet users can report broken buckles, shattered visors or shells that fade in sunlight or come off, for example.
- Recall numbers are down a little, but civil penalties are rising and CPSC will continue to push them up. Chinese product recalls are declining and CPSC has a program helping to address that problem. They have averaged only about one helmet recall per year and none since December of 2007.
- CPSC is enthusiastically using Twitter, Facebook and other social media to get recall info out to users. But you still can't subscribe for just helmet recalls, for example, a good reason to read the Helmet Update!
- CPSC has done joint recalls with Health Canada, and may expand that to other countries if coordination barriers can be resolved. That should reduce dumping of recalled product in other markets. They are coordinating compliance activities with State Attorneys General, who have some enforcement functions now, hoping to maintain common approaches. Helmets that fail the CPSC impact standard could well meet the CEN standard, however, so they could continue to be sold in Europe and elsewhere.
- Coming soon: a Diagnostic Guide to help determine what standards apply to a product. Later there will be an Importer's Guide. A new CPSC test lab facility will open in December, but since the helmet lab equipment was already adequate the real question will be personnel to procure and test more helmets. The guides should be an aid to smaller helmet importers and manufacturers just coming to the US market.
- Chairman Inez Tenenbaum delivered an enthusiastic and determined keynote address, emphasizing how well the staff is performing with additional resources and that CPSC will not be timid about using new regulatory authority from the CPSIA legislation.
A lot is happening at CPSC, and if you are in favor of more effective consumer product regulation it is all encouraging. Much of the focus is on children's products. A few in the audience were privately exchanging relentless criticism in the current political style, so it will not all be smooth going.
For helmets, the changes at CPSC will increase mandatory third party testing to verify compliance, but will not change the current standard. Lead and phthalates are being reduced or eliminated from helmet components, but the future of nano products is a question mark. There is a possibility that CPSC will enforce ASTM standards for other types of helmets, or even adopt their own legally-required Rules. If they ever do, it would eliminate non-bicycle helmets now being sold here that do not meet ASTM standards for their sport.