Putting Children’s Products to the (Lead) Test

curious george squareI recently spoke to a group of business leaders from the apparel industry, many of whom make children’s clothes and other kids’ products. Many small businesses that make children’s products are concerned about implementation of a new federal law, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), which sets strict limits on lead and phthalates in children’s products. Since CEH has a long history of work to end lead threats to children, the industry group was interested to hear our perspective.

There were a few polite questions following my speech, but when the group broke for lunch, I was quickly surrounded by representatives from companies who wanted to know more about the law, what they needed to do to comply with it, and why a little lead in clothing would hurt anyone anyway. (Pictured above: In 2007, Curious George dolls were recalled after CEH found high levels of lead)

Interestingly, on the same day that I spoke to the apparel makers in New York, the New York Times ran a story about small toymakers upset about the new lead rules. The story featured a Maine toymaker who was concerned about the increased costs he faced for his wooden toys. “This is absurd,” he told the Times. “The law was targeted at large toymakers using lead. There was no exclusion for benign products.”

For more than a decade before the new federal rules were even considered, CEH worked to end lead threats to children from dozens of products, including baby bibs, diaper rash creams, candy, children’s lunchboxes, children’s jewelry, children’s medicines and many others. In our work, we routinely found extremely high levels of lead in many products – indeed, in children’s jewelry it was common to find metals that were 80-100% lead. In one 2006 case, a four-year old died after ingesting a metal charm that was nearly 100% lead, and we uncovered several other cases of children who swallowed or chewed on lead-tainted jewelry, and who suffered potentially life-long harm.

But in the past year, our testing of jewelry has found fewer instances of children’s products with high lead levels – a stark contrast to the masses of lead-tainted jewelry we often found just a few years ago. While there is still some lead-tainted jewelry on store shelves, the new federal rules are working to lessen the problem, and more products for our children are now safer.

We understand that small companies need fair rules and application of the law that accounts for their size and ability to meet legal requirements. The Maine toy maker who complained to the Times should know that some accommodations are in process: in January 2009, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) proposed a list of natural materials, including wood, which would be exempted from the new lead testing requirements.

Another good step would be for Congress to establish a fund, paid by fees on larger companies, to help small businesses with testing costs associated with the new lead law. When we worked with the California Attorney General on a legal agreement to eliminate lead risks from imported candies, we established such a fund paid by the major producers to help small producers comply with the law.

The intent of the CPSIA is to protect kids from hazardous chemicals, not to give larger companies, who were responsible for the vast majority of the lead-tainted recalled products in the past, a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted November 10, 2009 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    It is very true that many manufacturers and retailers are still in the dark about this law. Either they know nothing about it, or they know a little and don’t understand it.

    It is interesting that the government, which can find you if you owe money, cannot find ways to adequately inform and educate the industry about this law, which by the way has huge penalties non-compliance. Some might argue they fear that the more manufacturers (of all sizes) and retailers know about the law, the more they will speak up to voice their concerns about its problems.

    Yes, the CPSC has offered exemptions, but it doesn’t help if you want color on your wood, designs on your clothes, or zippers & buttons on your pants.

    There are many other compliance & administrative costs which do not make an item any safer which are impossible for small manufacturers (including those devoted to natural, green products) to incorporate into their price. This is a fact, and we are losing wonderful, natural, small batch products as a result.

    We are all committed to providing the very best products for your children. Without substantive changes in the way this law is applied (not the standards themselves) this country won’t have to worry about what the handmade & niche children’s products manufacturers in this country think, because we will all be gone.

    Contact your Congressman & Senators today to ask them to amend this law in ways that will keep children safe AND wonderful products on the shelves.

  2. Posted November 10, 2009 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    I very much appreciate that you are touching on some of the effects of the CPSIA. I think we can all agree that the intent of the CPSIA was laudable, but it is becoming clear that the effects very much benefit Big Toy companies to the determent of small and medium sized companies.

    It is true that lead in paint and lead in jewelry were very much a problem prior to the CPSIA, but the CPSIA does not just apply to those issues, nor does it apply only to toys. It applies to all children’s products, including clothes, cloth diapers, books, and classroom supplies. The basic flaw with the CPSIA is that it took a problem that was limited in scope (lead in paint and jewelry, mostly made in China) and applied a broad-based solution that effects a broad range of products that have no history of safety problems like ballpoint pens, ATVs, and handmade goods.

    It is also true that John Woods’ toys do not need to be tested for lead thanks to exemptions for natural materials that we fought hard for. While the NY Times failed to address this point, they also failed to address the fact that the CPSIA will require him to test each of his products to ASTM standards, at a rate of $200-$350 per toy. So, he’s not in the clear quite yet.

    Finally, you write that “Another good step would be for Congress to establish a fund, paid by fees on larger companies, to help small businesses with testing costs associated with the new lead law.” We were told by our representatives almost a year ago that this type of funding would not be doable, which is why we’ve been arguing for a risk-based approach to testing requirements instead. However, we would love it if you could write to the House and Senate Commerce Committees to suggest this idea on our behalf. So far, they’ve been unwilling to admit any flaw whatsoever in the CPSIA.

    My wife and I started a natural toy store in St. Paul because we wanted to offer families better products than the junk like the Curious George toy you highlight. We’ve spent 12 years seeking out domestic and European manufacturers who are committed to quality products and fair working conditions. To see these wonderful businesses threatened by the CPSIA just breaks our hearts.

    Our commitment to safe, quality products is the only reason why we are trying so hard to fix the CPSIA. We and the other members of the Handmade Toy Alliance share almost all of your organization’s concerns about toxic toys. We could use your help now to let Congress know that small businesses shouldn’t be killed by this law. After all, wouldn’t it be better to fix this in 20009 or 2010 under a Democratic congress than wait until 2011? Please contact savehandmadetoys@gmail.com and let’s work together to find some solutions.

  3. Thomas Denning
    Posted December 6, 2009 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    One cannot dispute any laws as it is a law. The reason the CPSIA is in place is to keep kids safe. The more people try to fuss about the law, the more complicated it will become.

    I agree that the law should penalize anyone that intentionally tries to sell toys that can hurt kids.

    I am a Maintenance Manager in the Hospitality industry. In the industrial world too there are numerous laws passed for metal compliance and performance on various industrial equipment. I use, http://www.msitesting.com/, to sort out most of my complicated metal related problems