Farewell to product safety

Ever wish you had a portable generator for one of our all-too-frequent power outages? I was one of a million or so people who lost power for almost a week last March.

Fortunately for me, my plumber brought one over to save the food in my refrigerator. Even more fortunate, he insisted I leave the generator outside. Few know it, but they are extremely dangerous. "One portable generator in your garage emits as much carbon monoxide as between 450 and 1,500 idling cars," Marietta "Marti" Robinson tells me when I catch up with her one recent morning over some oatmeal and fruit in Pleasant Ridge.

She ought to know; she is one of five members of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which exists, as its own website says, to "ensure the safety of consumer products," and to "[protect] consumers and their families from products that pose a fire, electrical, chemical, or mechanical hazard."

Unfortunately, Robinson, who was a highly esteemed trial lawyer in Detroit for years, fears the age of consumer protection is about to come to an end. Her term ends this month, and she'll be gone as soon as the U.S. Senate confirms her replacement.

That will give Republicans a 3-2 majority on the commission. Robinson understands that's how the game is played; presidents fill vacant positions with members of their own parties.

It's not that she thinks all Republicans are evil. As a matter of fact, she personally likes the woman President Donald Trump has nominated to be the permanent chair of the CPSC, current member Ann Marie Buerkle.

But Robinson says she regards her as an anti-consumer radical who, in four years on the commission "has never taken a single position on anything that wasn't 100 percent in alignment," with what the affected industry wanted.

For example, consider the gassy portable generators. I'm a fairly well-informed guy, and I told her I was surprised that I had never heard how dangerous they were. Robinson smiled.

The industry, she tells me, doesn't really want us to know. The warning labels just say not to use the generators inside. Many, however, pay no attention. "Hundreds of people die, or are injured, many of them catastrophically, from (carbon monoxide) poisoning from portable generators every year," Robinson says.

But what's most tragic is that they don't have to be that dangerous: Robinson told me that it has been technologically feasible for many years to lower those emissions by as much as 90 percent. "However, manufacturers, with few exceptions, have refused to do so," and so people have gone on dying.

Finally, the Consumer Product Safety Commission decided it was time to get tough. They voted 4-1 to issue a "notice of proposed rulemaking" to the industry.

The result of that, she said, was that the manufacturers of generators finally started working on a voluntary standard that incorporates a CO detector and a cut-off switch.

"It finally seemed as though we would find a solution that would save lives," she says.

But then Donald Trump became president. He soon appointed Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma, a longtime enemy of the Environmental Protection Agency, as head of the EPA.

Pruitt soon sent a letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission telling them to stop making rules, and that the EPA would handle it. Robinson protested; portable generators weren't within the EPA's jurisdiction.

Her fellow commissioners all agreed, she said. All except one: Ann Marie Buerkle, now the acting chair. She happily wrote to Pruitt, and said she agreed with him.

That's probably the end of any move to have safer generators. That's far from the only horror story; there's a species of fire retardant called OFRs (for Organohalogen Flame Retardants) that some of the most preeminent toxicologists have begged the CPSC to ban.

"Of those on which we have data, all are toxic with particularly devastating effect on fetuses, babies, and small children," she says. So did the commission ban them?

Well, no. Things don't happen that quickly. There was a 3-2 party line vote to appoint a panel of scientists to give the commissioners advice on what rules they should make.

But Robinson fears that once she's been replaced by a Republican, any push to make these products safer will end.

That's not just partisan spite. Robinson, who is 65, is an internationally highly regarded professional. Her career includes being the first woman president of the International Society of Barristers. She was also counsel to the chair of the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission in Liberia, and was a federally appointed trustee of the Dalkon Shield Trust, which disbursed more than $2.4 billion to women harmed by that defective contraceptive device.

She's a major leaguer. But Robinson also knows, and accepts, that elections have consequences.

When Democrats hold the White House, they get to fill all the little-noticed but often highly important agency jobs.

Ditto for the Republicans, and she accepts that. "I fully appreciate that Rs and Ds have different views generally of regulations," she says. Nor would she say that Democrats have always been right, and she knows that every government has some regulations that need to be repealed or loosened.

Yet what's going on now is something else.

This is the most radically destructive administration in history. While the press and public are focused on the daily clown show, "too many people have been ignoring the level at which our country's fabric is really being undone."

True, Donald Trump's major legislative initiatives have failed or stalled because of his own narcissistic incompetence. But away from the cameras, she fears the foundations of what makes this a great and good country are being destroyed.

"Agencies and other parts of the executive branch are where the action is," she says. "The wholesale dismantling of our agencies that have served critically important functions could undo our country as we know it."

So, she's now lobbying hard against the confirmation of Buerkle as chair. She knows it is probably futile.

Republicans have a majority in the Senate, and such nominations tend to be almost rubber-stamped, particularly if the nominee is already part of the commission.

But she feels she has to try.

As she said, maybe "you can't stop the train, but you cannot just let the passengers enjoy the scenery."

Etue, Snyder

Okay, okay, that only works if you know your Shakespeare (et tu, Brute?) but the flap over Michigan State Police director Kriste Kibbey Etue's racist right-wing Facebook post illustrates a Shakespearean flaw in our governor. The guy just can't fire anyone, even when he should.

Remember the Flint water crisis? For months after it was proven the state-appointed officials were responsible for poisoning an entire city, and that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had covered up the truth, Rick Snyder did nothing. That is, not until his own task force pretty much forced him to fire Dan Wyant and his sneering press aide.

Now we have a situation where the head of the state police is on record as believing that black athletes who don't share her political views are "degenerates" and "millionaire ingrates who hate America." No reason to fire her, said Rick Snyder.

After all, she apologized. Well, in fact, Etue didn't.

All she said was "it was a mistake to share this message on Facebook." Not a word about not really believing her hate-filled rant. Actually, what she ought to be doing is working as a security guard for the Gilbraltar Trade Center in Taylor.

Yes, I am aware it closed three years ago.

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