Obama Product Safety Chief Tenenbaum Returns to South Carolina

By John Monk, The State | December 6, 2013
Inez Tenenbaum

After four years in Washington as the nation’s products safety czar, Inez Tenenbaum is coming home to the Columbia area, her life changed in ways large and small.

“Now I’m always giving advice unsolicited to my friends and nieces and nephews,” said Tenenbaum, 62, who has just finished four years as chairwoman of the Consumer Products Safety Commission last month.

“When I see them now with infants, I warn them about everything from being in the wrong position on baby swings and to take all the pillows and comforters out of their beds,” she said.

“I just can’t help myself — I’ve seen the terrible lifelong pain families go through when they lose a child.”

Nominated by President Barack Obama in June 2009 to lead the commission, the U.S. Senate — with the backing of Sen. Lindsey Graham and then-Sen. Jim DeMint — quickly confirmed her. A lawyer, former South Carolina House legislative staffer and former State Superintendent of Education, she had no significant prior product safety experience.

She began a four-year whirlwind of activity that included traveling to nine countries, working with the NFL and other football groups about helmet standards, jawboning the Chinese in China about poison drywall and toy products, and working to make sure defective cribs no longer killed and injured as many babies as they once did.

She took her $162,000-a-year post at just the right time. Over the years, recalls of defective products that hurt children had been rising, with 2007 getting the label the “Year of the Recall.”

Finally, in 2008, Congress passed a consumer safety improvement act, doubling the commission’s budget to nearly $120 million and increasing its 300-person staff — which includes chemists, pharmaceutical experts and engineers — to nearly 500. The commission also got a new testing lab.

That act was to take effect in 2012, and it was Tenenbaum’s job to oversee the drawing up and implementation of tough enforcement regulations.

“There was a lot of pushback from industry on many changes she oversaw — lead limits in toys, testing of products — she really held a firm line,” said Nancy Cowles, executive director of the Chicago-based group Kids in Danger. “She made a huge difference in safety.”

For example, Cowles said, although a 2008 law made baby cribs safer, Tenenbaum pushed for regulations that required intensive pre-market testing to verify the new cribs would not fail. That law — named Danny’s Law after a Chicago boy who was killed by a defective crib — went into effect in 2012.

“Inez kept a picture of Danny on her desk — it showed what her priorities were,” Cowles said. “She’s made a huge difference in safety. Could any leader have done what she did? No. It takes someone at the top to get things done.”

Kids in Danger and four other nationally-known consumer advocacy groups commended Tenenbaum and her “open and responsive leadership.” The other groups were Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Public Citizen and U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Industry groups regulated by Consumer Products Safety Commission also praised her, though less effusively.

Carter Keithley, president of the New York City-based Toy Industry Association, said: “We didn’t always agree on things, but from the time I met her, at a toy safety initiative meeting in Singapore, I remember how she sat in the front row and took copious notes. It was clear she was serious about approaching things on the basis of having a sound understanding of them.

“She treated the industry with respect, as a resource, not as the enemy.”

Joe McGuire, president of the Washington-based Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, said, “She was fair, took a balanced approach, she made herself available, she met with us when we asked her to — from our perspective, it’s important we have the opportunity to present our views.”

Michael Dwyer, executive director of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers, praised Tenenbaum for her “grace and leadership.” In a prepared statement, he said in part, “Our goals (to advance child product safety) were shared goals, and while we may not have always agreed on how to do it, we did agree on the importance of getting it done.”

Tenenbaum has a list of unfinished Consumer Products Safety Commission business. It includes:

  • Ensuring home generators have carbon monoxide detectors that would shut them off if levels got too high.
  • Making all-terrain vehicles safer.
  • Making the clusters of small, magnetized balls that toy manufacturers sell safer.

“There are still dozens and dozens of children who are swallowing them,” Tenenbaum said of the magnetized balls. “I think we’ve had 1,700 incidents of children injured by these balls, many of whom had major abdominal surgeries.”

Asked about specific accomplishments, Tenenbaum says she made the agency more transparent.

In 2009, the commission’s five-member governing board had secret meetings and used secret ballots to vote on the public’s business.

“I said, ‘We’re going to open all of our meetings and … we will make them available on the Internet so people can watch our meetings,’” Tenenbaum said. As a result, “people are able to listen to us deliberate and know the reasons for our decisions.”

Other accomplishments include creating a consumer-friendly national public database where people can file complaints about defective products; having an independent third-party laboratory test children’s products; and implementing a system to check ship manifests and other sources to detect dangerous products coming into the United States while they are still at sea and easier to stop. That system in November detected 200,000 Chinese toy dolls made with a banned poisonous chemical on ships set to unload at U.S. ports, according to the commission.

Educating the public about dangers has been a Tenenbaum initiative, and the commission’s website, cpsc.gov, teems with easily accessible information on how to avoid deaths and injuries in everything from ATVs to fireworks to swimming in ponds.

This month, Tenenbaum will join the huge Columbia law firm of Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough. The 500-plus-lawyer firm has offices in Washington and states from Florida to Massachusetts.

Jim Lehman, the firm’s managing partner, said last week general plans for Tenenbaum will allow her not only to maintain a Washington presence but to be active in the Columbia firms and in Midlands community affairs.

“She’s been a leader every step of her career,” Lehman said, referring to Tenenbaum’s history, which includes an eight-year stint as South Carolina superintendent of education.

“She is bringing back a real expertise in the regulatory areas that we think will be of real benefit to our clients,” Lehman said. “She also can help our clients on the education side.”

Due to ethics rules, Tenenbaum cannot advocate in front of the Consumer Products Safety Commission until Obama leaves office. However, she is free to give advice to those who have issues under the commission’s jurisdiction.

Tenenbaum said for most of her time at the Consumer Products Safety Commission, she had the backing of both parties.

“Whether you are Democrat or Republican, you want the consumer to be protected,” she said.

What is she most satisfied about as she leaves Washington?

Making the agency focus on prevention and making America’s safe crib standards and low lead levels in toys “the best in the world,” she said. “I believe I have achieved my mission of being a champion for children.”

One thing she won’t miss — commuting weekly to Washington from her Lexington County home.

For four years, almost every Monday, she set alarm for 4 a.m. Husband Samuel would drive her to Columbia Metropolitan Airport to catch the 6:15 a.m. flight to Washington.

“There will not be an alarm clock set in my house for 4 a.m. for a long time!” she laughed.

 

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