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CPSC's Scorching Mistake

Government delays a safety recall because hoops weren't jumped through.

By Will Offensicht  |  September 18, 2016

It's long been standard practice for government regulations to make problems worse than they were before the regs were written.  To name but one example, the BP "Deepwater Horizon" oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico was far worse than it had to be because government regulations made it impossible to clean up the mess efficiently.

Now the Wall Street Journal is telling us how the venerable and supposedly right-on "Consumer Product Safety Commission" (CPSC) made Samsung's Galaxy cellphone "Burning Batteries" issue worse, and therefore deadlier, than it had to be.

Samsung has shipped more than 2.5 million Note 7 smart phones to customers in at least 10 countries since their August 19 launch.  The global press soon started carrying reports that the new model could catch fire while charging the battery.

This turned out to be true, and Samsung took the issue seriously: On September 2, Samsung said it would recall all the phones because of the battery problem.

On September 14, Samsung offered a software update for Korean users that would limit battery charge to 60%.  While this is inconvenient, it seems to prevent batteries from catching fire.  For most users, this would probably be preferable to getting a new phone and having to reinstall all their data; the patch gives them the choice of patiently waiting for a new and improved battery at the cost of a little inconvenience.

Alas, this temporary fix is not available in the US - thanks to the CPSC.

In announcing the recall, however, experts say, the South Korean company appears to have neglected to first coordinate with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. According to U.S. law, the agency must be notified within 24 hours after a safety risk has been identified, and recall announcements are generally then carried out jointly with the CPSC.

In other words, a company has to get federal permission before announcing a recall?  What if a problem comes up on Friday after all the bureaucrats have gone home?  Must the recall wait while people die until the CPSC gets its act together?

That seems to be the case; what's odd is that Samsung didn't wait:

"This is completely unusual; companies just don't issue recalls without the CPSC," says Pamela Gilbert, a partner with Washington's Cuneo Gilbert & LaDuca LLP and a former executive director of the CPSC. If a company cooperates and contacts the CPSC first, the CPSC can issue a warning to consumers immediately, and then issue a recall after determining how to fix the problem, Ms. Gilbert says.

As a result, the software update that it has offered to customers in South Korea won't be available in the U.S. while the company continues its negotiations with federal officials on a resolution.

That's great, just great!  Samsung's software update won't solve the problem, but it does reduce battery fires while they work out a permanent solution.  Our wondrous CPSC, however, won't let them even attempt to mitigate the damage until the Feds finish straining at gnats.

CPSC turned us into a nation of book-burners, and now this.  Thanks again, Your Tax Dollars!