Consumer Product Safety Commision

As a result of the action by the Consumer Product Safety Comission (CPSC) against Firefox Enterprises, I decided to dig a little deeper into the law and regulations concerning hazardous substances. As a result I decided that the CPSC deserves some discussion.

The CPSC laws are kind of a mess because they are broken up into pieces. One chunk (15 USC Chapter 30) deals with hazardous materials and has the "banned hazardous substance" laws. Another chunk (15 USC Chapter 47) covers consumer product safety. The laws being used by the CPSC against Firefox are in Chapter 30 and these affect rocketry as well. So lets take a look.

This is sort of a top down approach. The first step is to see what is prohibited.

15 USC 1263

The following acts and the causing thereof are prohibited:

  1. The introduction or delivery for introduction into interstate commerce of any misbranded hazardous substance or banned hazardous substance.....

Then there is the definition of "banned hazardous substance".

15 USC 1261


  1. The term "banned hazardous substance" means
    1. any toy, or other article intended for use by children, which is a hazardous substance, or which bears or contains a hazardous substance in such manner as to be susceptible of access by a child to whom such toy or other article is entrusted; or
    2. any hazardous substance intended, or packaged in a form suitable, for use in the household, which the Commission by regulation classifies as a "banned hazardous substance" on the basis of a finding that, notwithstanding such cautionary labeling as is or may be required under this chapter for that substance, the degree or nature of the hazard involved in the presence or use of such substance in households is such that the objective of the protection of the public health and safety can be adequately served only by keeping such substance, when so intended or packaged, out of the channels of interstate commerce: Provided, That the Commission, by regulation,
      1. shall exempt from clause (A) of this paragraph articles, such as chemical sets, which by reason of their functional purpose require the inclusion of the hazardous substance involved or necessarily present an electrical, mechanical, or thermal hazard, and which bear labeling giving adequate directions and warnings for safe use and are intended for use by children who have attained sufficient maturity, and may reasonably be expected, to read and heed such directions and warnings, and
      2. shall exempt from clause (A), and provide for the labeling of, common fireworks (including toy paper caps, cone fountains, cylinder fountains, whistles without report, and sparklers) to the extent that it determines that such articles can be adequately labeled to protect the purchasers and users thereof.
  2. Proceedings for the issuance, amendment, or repeal of regulations pursuant to clause (B) of paragraph (1) of this subsection shall be governed by the provisions of sections 371 (e), (f), and (g) of title 21: Provided, That if the Commission finds that the distribution for household use of the hazardous substance involved presents an imminent hazard to the public health, it may by order published in the Federal Register give notice of such finding, and thereupon such substance when intended or offered for household use, or when so packaged as to be suitable for such use, shall be deemed to be a 'banned hazardous substance' pending the completion of proceedings relating to the issuance of such regulations.

OK. That covers the law. Now for the rules and regulations promulgated by the CPSC. First there is the exemption for model rocket motors.

16 CFR 1500.85 Exemptions from classification as banned hazardous substances.

(a) The term banned hazardous substances as used in section 2(q)(1)(A) of the act shall not apply to the following articles provided that these articles bear labeling giving adequate directions and warnings for safe use:


(8) Model rocket propellant devices designed for use in light- weight, recoverable, and reflyable model rockets, provided such devices:

  1. Are designed to be ignited by electrical means.
  2. Contain no more than 62.5 grams (2.2 ounces) of propellant material and produce less than 80 newton-seconds (17.92 pound seconds) of total impulse with thrust duration not less than 0.050 second.
  3. Are constructed such that all the chemical ingredients are preloaded into a cylindrical paper or similarly constructed nonmetallic tube that will not fragment into sharp, hard pieces.
  4. Are designed so that they will not burst under normal conditions of use, are incapable of spontaneous ignition, and do not contain any type of explosive or pyrotechnic warhead other than a small parachute or recovery-system activation charge.

This is referring to clause (A) of the definition of "banned hazardous substance" in the law so these model rocket motors are considered to be "toys" containing hazardous substances. This exemption allows these dangerous items to be sold to children. Because rocket motors are not explicitly listed as "banned hazardous substances" per clause (B), adults can buy rocket motors that don't meet the criteria in the exemption.

Firefox is being accused of violating clause (B) of the law because certain fireworks, kits, or components, are listed as banned hazardous substances.

16 CFR 1500.17 Banned hazardous substances.

(a) Under the authority of section 2(q)(1)(B) of the act, the Commission declares as banned hazardous substances the following articles because they possess such a degree or nature of hazard that adequate cautionary labeling cannot be written and the public health and safety can be served only by keeping such articles out of interstate commerce:


(3) Fireworks devices intended to produce audible effects (including but not limited to cherry bombs, M-80 salutes, silver salutes, and other large firecrackers, aerial bombs, and other fireworks designed to produce audible effects, and including kits and components intended to produce such fireworks) if the audible effect is produced by a charge of more than 2 grains of pyrotechnic composition; except that this provision shall not apply to such fireworks devices if all of the following conditions are met:

  1. Such fireworks devices are distributed to farmers, ranchers, or growers through a wildlife management program administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior (or by equivalent State or local government agencies); and
  2. Such distribution is in response to a written application describing the wildlife management problem that requires use of such devices, is of a quantity no greater than required to control the problem described, and is where other means of control are unavailable or inadequate. (See also Sec. 1500.14(b)(7); Sec. 1500.17(a) (8) and (9); Sec. 1500.83(a)(27); Sec. 1500.85(a)(2); and part 1507).

This is only an excerpt of this section. It is much too long to quote all of it here but this should give you an idea. If you want to read it all, just click on the link.

Firefox is not selling kits to make banned fireworks, they are selling materials that could be used to make them. But the key word in the regulations is "intended". Are the materials intended to be used in the production of "banned" fireworks? It isn't clear to me that they are. The CPSC lists several orders of materials from Firefox as examples of violations of the law. The CPSC also requests a restraining order to limit what and how much of various materials can be sold unless the purchaser has a BATFE manufacturers permit. You can read the entire complaint on the Firefox web site.

Paragraph Item restricted?
20 5 pounds sulfer No
  10 feet fuse No
  1000 paper tubes, 2000 end caps No
21 5 pounds potassium chlorate Yes
  500 paper tubes No
22 1 pound aluminum powder Unknown. Particle size not specified
  300 paper tubes No
23 5 pounds potassium chlorate Yes
  1 pound aluminum powder Unknown. Particle size not specified
  250 cardboard tubes, 500 end caps No
24 250 feet fuse yes

The third column indicates if the item is one of those the CPSC wants to restrict as detailed in the relief section of the complaint.

In only one of these citations (23) is it clear that the materials purchased could be used to make explosives. (A 2 to 1 mixture of potassium chlorate and aluminum makes a nice flash powder according to one web site I found.) Now the question is, did the seller "intend" for these materials be used to make banned fireworks? For the fireworks to be banned they would have to contain more than a certain amount of material. How can the seller know the quantity in the finished product?

Paper tubes and end caps were part of these purchases and appear to be "components". Why doesn't the CPSC want to restrict their sale as well?

Another detail of the law is that the material must be "intended, or packaged in a form suitable, for use in the household". Just exactly what does this mean? I don't know.

The CPSC appears to have decided that only if these materials are sold to someone with a BATFE manufacturers permit, this demonstrates that they will not be used in a household.

Because Firefox sells instructions for making fireworks and the materials suitable for making fireworks, they will be hard pressed to make the case that the materials were not intended for the making of fireworks.

The actions of the CPSC against Firefox are of great interest to those rocketeers who make their own motors because Firefox is a major supplier of ammonium perchlorate and powdered metals used in propellant. The CPSC wants to restrict the sale of these materials to only holders of BATFE manufacturers permits. They do not care about what the intended product is or that the BATFE has stated that you can make motors for your own use without a manufacturers permit.

While Firefox certainly appears to be in trouble, the restrictions the CPSC wants will effect far more than the production of "banned" fireworks. Firefox may be able to beat the CPSC on this but it will be expensive and I don't like the odds.

For a time while I was looking through these laws and regulations, I was afraid that the CPSC could try and impose similar restrictions on rocket motors. Now I know that in order to do that, they would first have to go through the process of adding them to the list of "banned hazardous substances" at 16 CFR 1500.17.

So the commercial side of the hobby is safe for now. The EX part is in trouble because it will become increasingly difficult to purchase chemicals if the CPSC is successful.

July 2006

The CPSC is starting the process to change the regulations. But they are not being nice about it. First they cancelled the hearing where the public gets to comment on their agenda and now they have published an advanced notice of proposed rule making. See also the statement from one of the CPSC commisioners about this.

The referenced report is interesting reading. The number one cause, with a bullet, of the accidents listed is stupidity. So the CPSC wants to make the world safe for idiots. They also home in on the statistic that supports their position which is the number of estimated accidents per population rather than the number in relation to the amount of product used. Which is decreasing. The obvious conclusion from the numbers is that the fireworks are just as safe if not more so but that there are more idiots running around.

In addition, the 2005 fireworks report provides no support for the CPSC's attack on chemical suppliers. They handwave around the fact that few if any incidents with banned fireworks were reported.

There is currently no estimated time for any action beyond the ANPRM. (Still true in 2009.)

Jan. 2007

The court recently handed down a decision in the case against Firefox Enterprises. My take on reading it is that the least of Firefox's troubles were with the CPSC. Most of the document has to do with the improper shipping of hazardous materials. The judge ordered the two sides to negotiate a settlement otherwise he would impose one.

May 2007

No agreement was reached and the judge imposed all of the governments suggested restrictions on 30 April in the form of a permanent injuction against Firefox, its owners, and all successors.