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An All-Consuming Career

by Clare Coppa

Each year, consumer advocates work to improve the safety of American products. These are not your garden-variety supermarket surveyors or telemarketers, but bona fide consumer specialists with regulatory knowledge enabling them to lobby Congress and influence standards as guardians for the consumer.

Dangerous products that cause injuries were among $4 billion worth of infant and toddler products purchased last year. Representatives from both federal government and non-profit watchdog agencies like the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, D.C., have been active in ASTM standards development for decades.

Attorney and author Mary Ellen R. Fise, general counsel for the Consumer Federation of America, has helped to develop standards for safer juvenile products with ASTM Consumer Products Committee F15 since 1984.

“For the most part, voluntary standards are one of the prime mechanisms that we use in this country to provide protection on consumer products to address those hazards,” Fise said.

“My role over the years has been to get in there and represent consumers and to ask the really tough questions of the manufacturers. In many cases, what I’m asking is, ‘tell me the rationale for the test that you have included.’ And I ask a lot of hard questions trying to get them to make sure that the test replicates what’s happening in real life, with the size of the user, making sure that it’s reasonable, and it’s not just that they came up with a test that all manufacturers can meet.”

An ASTM standard for bunk beds Fise helped to develop became a mandatory standard. “That’s a case where even though there was a voluntary standard, it wasn’t being complied with, so the government stepped in and said the issue that this standard covers—entrapment or children strangling in their bunk beds—is so important that we want all manufacturers to comply with it and if they don’t, it will be a violation of federal law,” she said. From the government’s standpoint, the hazard was an unreasonable risk to consumers.

Fise also oversees consumer policy issues of the American National Standards Institute as vice-counsel of its overarching committee, the Consumer Interest Council. For the Consumer Federation, she handles legal issues, advocacy before Congress, and consumer education. She co-authored The Childwise Catalog: A Consumer Guide to Buying the Safest and Best Products for Your Children (1986: Harper Perennial) with Jack Gillis, CFA Public Affairs director. The book is the basis for online guidance on a long list of children’s products.

Products tested according to ASTM standards meet safety requirements approved through the consensus of concerned volunteers. “In many, many cases, it’s voluntary standards that provide the protection for parents, and all consumers,” Fise concluded. //

Copyright 2001, ASTM