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Consumers Union impact

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Since its first issue in 1936, Consumer Reports (CR) has never accepted paid ads. Free from the pressures of advertisers and commercial influence, Consumer Reports has tackled some of the toughest safety issues of the time, evaluating new products and technologies and warning about potential dangers. From seat belts to strontium-90, lawnmowers to locks, and hazardous vehicles to heaters, Consumer Reports has been on the cutting edge of reporting risks and striving to improve the quality of the consumer marketplace.

Here are 10 instances where the magazine's pioneering research and testing have been acknowledged as making a difference in improving consumers' safety and health.

1. Safety Belts, 1956-1968. In 1956, Consumer Reports' auto engineers made a disturbing discovery as they tested safety belts: a whopping two-thirds--26 of 39 belts--failed to meet even modest guidelines. Buckles broke and webs tore during static testing; others failed our simulated crash tests. The results prompted Consumers Union (CU), long an advocate of safety belts as standard equipment at a time when they were merely an option, to call for better belts and, later, for federal standards that incorporated actual crash testing. CU tested seat belts regularly until the government mandated them in the front seats of all new cars in 1968.

2. Cigarettes, 1953-1964. CR's independent testing and research of cigarettes began in 1953 when the magazine sought to separate for its readers the myths of manufacturer advertising from the realities and potential health risks of everyday smoking. CR's work culminated a decade later in the publishing of The Consumers Union Report on Smoking and the Public Interest, which sold more than 50,000 copies by November of 1963. Consumers Union's work was used by the Surgeon General's Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health in drafting the committee's 1964 landmark report, which warned the nation about the public health threat of cigarettes.

3. Strontium-90, 1958-1963. Consumers Union's 1958 tests for the amount of strontium-90 in samples of milk sold in 50 U.S. and Canadian cities constituted the first large-scale checkup on the consumer's exposure to fallout from nuclear weapons testing. In subsequent projects, CU expanded its studies to comprehensive surveys of several radioactive elements in the total diet. The surveys showed a potential hazard to consumers and prompted the Federal Government to expand its monitoring of fallout. CU's work also helped build public support for the 1963 nuclear test-ban treaty.

4. Microwave Ovens, 1973-1976. In 1973, Consumer Reports evaluated what was then a new household luxury item-the microwave. Through rigorous testing, CR engineers found that the products leaked radiation at levels they could not be sure was harmless. CR issued a "not recommended" warning for the entire class of products and filed petitions with the government, which ultimately resulted in improved door interlocks and warning labels on microwaves advising consumers on how to avoid possible exposure to excessive microwave energy.

5. Safety of the Water Supply, 1974. In 1974, Consumer Reports published a landmark three-part series on the safety of the United States water supply, contending that water purification systems in many communities had not kept pace with increasing levels of pollution and that many community water supplies may have been contaminated with potential carcinogens. The reports, which won the magazine's first National Magazine Award, played a role in the enactment by Congress of the Safe Drinking Water Act in December 1974 and prompted inquiries into drinking water safety on local levels.

6. Child Safety Seats, 1972-Present. Thanks in part to its testing and advocacy, child-safety seats have come a long way since Consumer Reports crash-tested them for the magazine's August 1972 issue and rated 12 out of 15 of them Not Acceptable. Between 1972 and 1977, CR tested child seats four times, making it the only publication then regularly crash-testing safety seats and reporting the results to both consumers and the government. The day after CR released its 1974 report the government proposed a stronger child-restraint amendment and as of January 1, 1981, all manufacturers of child safety seats had to certify that their seats would pass a rigorous crash test. Today, Consumers Union continues to test child safety seats and its experts regularly provide comments to the government on proposals for new standards.

7. Lawnmowers, 1974-1983. Concerned about an estimated 161,000 people a year sustaining injuries, including amputations, because their body came in contact with a moving blade, the Consumer Product Safety Commission selected Consumers Union to develop a new safety standard for lawn mowers. Among the safety features recommended by CU that became mandatory under the final standard was a "deadman control" that must be held down to allow the blade to turn and that will, when released, stop the blade within three seconds. In 1983, despite a nearly decade-long lobbying battle with the outdoor power equipment industry, consumers were finally able to buy lawn mowers with the new features.

8. Kerosene Heaters, 1982. When Consumer Reports' engineers rated unvented kerosene heaters in 1982, they judged them all to be inherently hazardous as a class because of their potential both as a fire hazard and as a source of indoor air pollution, and recommended electric heaters as a safer choice. Based on these findings, CU called on the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to re-evaluate the health and safety hazards posed by the heaters. Soon after the report appeared, the CPSC launched an eight-month investigation costing $800,000. The CPSC report echoed CU's concerns and the industry trade association said it would voluntarily implement the CPSC-recommended changes geared to reduce contact-burn injuries, flare-up fires, and pollutants emitted by the heaters in time for the 1984-85 season.

9. Door Locks, 1990-1998. In a February 1990 report on door locks, Consumer Reports found in its first round of testing that a simple kick was often enough to defeat a door. The part of the lock that gave way was usually the strike plate - the metal plate that attaches to the door jamb and receives the lock's bolt or latch. For the second round, engineers pro-actively replaced the typical short screws in the strike plate with three-inch screws, which improved the performance of some of the locks, including nearly all the surface-mounted dead-bolt locks. When CR re-tested door locks for the September 1998 issue it found that many locks came with a substantial strike plate that had three-inch screws.

10. Vehicle Rollover, 1988-Present. Consumer Reports has followed few safety issues more closely than SUV rollovers. The organization first petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for a safety standard in 1988 to keep rollover-prone vehicles off the market. But it was not until after the Ford/Firestone debacle in 2000 that Congress finally directed NHTSA to develop dynamic rollover tests. CU testified at the time that information based on dynamic rollover tests of SUVs was needed for consumers to be able to select safer vehicles. In October 2003, CU praised the rigorous dynamic testing protocol NHTSA announced it would use in its rollover information program. The organization is now pressing the agency to make clearer the current presentation of the information, so that consumers can meaningfully discriminate between the safety of different models.