WASHINGTON — In Bob Adler's first public hearing as a member of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, he listened to stories about deadly baby cribs and toddlers tumbling out windows of high-rise apartment buildings. He heard pleas to investigate exploding gas cans and faulty carbon monoxide detectors.
Then Adler, a 64-year-old professor, went home and considered his new responsibilities, imagining the families he might not be able to save.
"You really lie awake at night just wracked," Adler said last week after the hearing.
"This thing's killing people, but this thing's killing more people," he said. "You can't solve all the problems, and some of the problems you're not solving are very, very horrible."
President Barack Obama nominated Adler in May to become one of five commissioners overseeing the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Adler, a legal studies professor in UNC-Chapel Hill's business school for the past 22 years, now helps monitor the safety of 15,000 products used around the home, from toys to appliances.
The agency reviews about 30,000 deaths every year that may be related to consumer products.
Product safety has been Adler's area of expertise since 1973. That was when he became an adviser to one of the new commissioners at the agency, which was just starting up.
He spent 11 years there before moving to Capitol Hill to work with a House committee, and then began teaching in Chapel Hill in 1987.
Sitting at a conference table in his office suite, Adler recalled the consumers he had met in the past.
"When you're at the commission, you meet horribly disfigured people, mutilated and burned," Adler said. "You see the real-life consequences of dangerous products."
Scar is his reminder
As he spoke, Adler slowly unbuttoned the right cuff of his dress shirt and rolled up his sleeve.
When he was about 2 years old, he thrust his arm into the wringer of his mother's washing machine. It gnawed at the toddler's flesh, reeling in his tiny arm up to the elbow.
When his mother rushed in, she had to extract it as flesh peeled away.
More than six decades later, the scar -- as wide as a man's hand -- encircles Adler's right forearm, pink and hairless, trailing from elbow to wrist.
It reminds him of how everyday products can hurt people.
The injury is not, however, the reason he became obsessed with consumer safety.
"It sounds mawkish when you say it aloud," Adler said. "But that's me."
Adler said he tries to take an ethical approach to the work. The agency's top priority, he said, should be to go after the products that hurt the most people most frequently. The agency must protect the most vulnerable consumers, usually children.
At the same time, he said, the agency shouldn't go too far in its oversight. A knife, for example, still has to be sharp enough to cut.
"You can make things so safe that no one can use the product," Adler said.
Still, every year, the commission lists dozens of recalls. Its Web site shows a rolling log of recalls -- a child's hooded sweatshirt, a refrigerator, a set of toy soldiers.
"We're very excited to see him on the commission," Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, a Chicago advocacy group, said of Adler. "He can be the person who can talk very specifically about the issues."
Former colleague and UNC-CH business professor Ben Rosen said Adler has intellectual curiosity, a personable demeanor and a thorough understanding of politics.
"He's just an amazingly hard worker, really dedicated to everything he does," Rosen said. "He's a great writer and really a great thinker."
In October, Obama named Adler to his transition team. Adler helped write a policy paper on the future of the agency. He refuses to disclose the report's contents, but, he said: "It's no secret, the obvious recommendation was to appoint a chairman soon." The Republican chairwoman was pushed aside, though she remains on the commission.
Adler comes to the agency as it struggles to regain its footing after strong criticism from Congress. News reports two years ago showed the agency stumbled in issuing recalls of faulty cribs despite several infant deaths. Commissioners were criticized for cozy relationships with industry.
Last year, Congress passed sweeping regulations in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which will set much of Adler's agenda in the coming year. The law sets standards and penalizes anyone who sells products that have been previously recalled. Industry interests and small businesses have fought back, calling the new law overly burdensome.
For now, Adler is in the throes of navigating his new job. He's amazed at his expansive suite of office space -- still empty for now -- overlooking the Maryland suburbs in Bethesda.
"I have my own bathroom," he said on a tour last week. "Look at this BlackBerry they gave me."
Beyond the new law, Adler has his own ideas. His biggest interest is in rules regarding flammable furniture.
Fires that start in sofas, chairs and other upholstered furniture account for one-fifth of all fire-related deaths, according to the National Association of State Fire Marshals. And yet, after decades of attempts by the commission, no mandatory standard exists.
"I think you're doing God's work," Adler told a fire marshal association representative at the hearing Wednesday.
But in his quiet way, Adler said later he doesn't want to be remembered for any one success.
"I just want to make the world a safer place."
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