Unsafe-products database at risk

This undated handout photo provided by the Consumer Products Safety Commission shows a Summer Infant video baby monitor. The commission says the electrical cords on the monitors pose a strangulation risk.

WASHINGTON -- It's something Nikki Johns wishes had been around before her infant son died in a drop-side crib, a centralized federal database of people's safety complaints about thousands of products, from baby gear to household appliances and more.

"If I had known there had been children killed in drop-sides, it would have swayed me against them," said Johns, who lost her 9-month-old son, Liam, in a faulty crib that came apart at the side rail and trapped the little boy one night after his mom went to bed at their home in Citrus Heights, Calif., nearly six years ago.

Johns, other parents who have tragically lost children and consumer advocates are eagerly awaiting March 11, the formal launch date for the government database SaferProducts.gov, where people can share complaints of injury or worse from everyday products such as cribs, high chairs, space heaters and toasters.

But the database, overseen by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, isn't universally popular.

Manufacturers and some members of Congress fear such a "crowd-sourced" website will be bloated with bogus, inaccurate or misleading reports.

One of those lawmakers, freshman Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., sponsored an amendment approved in the House last week to withhold additional funding for the database, which could bring the project to a halt.

Prospects for his amendment in the Democratic-led Senate aren't clear.

Anyone can submit a "report of harm" to the SaferProducts.gov database.

They are not required to have first-hand knowledge of the alleged injury or potential defect that could lead to injury.

The reports are reviewed by commission staff to make sure basic information is provided -- name, contact information, product, injury and approximate date, though personal information will be scrubbed before the report hits the database.

The manufacturer is informed of the complaint and has 10 days to respond before the report is made public.

CPSC said reports that have missing or clearly untrue information won't be published.

Plenty of safeguards exist to ensure accuracy, said CPSC Commissioner Bob Adler, a Democrat and database supporter.

Not only will manufacturers be allowed to publish any rebuttal along with the complaint, Adler said the commission will remove or attempt to correct any information that is found to be false.

"A report of harm comes in with a set of allegations, and then the manufacturer is free to respond as fully as they wish," Adler said.

"The consumer gets to be the ultimate judge, instead of having the government be the data nanny."

The ability to present both sides -- the person alleging harm and the manufacturer -- is unique, said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. a former state superintendent of education for South Carolina.

"We're the only federal database that allows manufacturers to post their comments," she said.

Pompeo and other opponents said that's not enough to prevent false information about a product from showing up in the database, damaging its sales and misleading consumers.

"The agency's rule would require it to post false information about products, which would actually steer consumers away from safe products and toward less safe products," said Pompeo.

Before the database goes public, Pompeo wants stronger rules about who can file injury reports and the kind of details they need to provide in order to guarantee the accuracy of the information.

Tenenbaum said the database would cost about $3 million.