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Make that unleaded

Government | Reducing childhood exposure to lead is increasing losses for small businesses and charities

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

Lancaster, Calif., resident Rebekah Wilson operates a small business with a big impact: It's helped hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young girls learn to sew by hand. Wilson started Hope Chest Legacy in 2000 and wrote a series of illustrated storybooks geared to ages 3-10. Each story incorporates a simple sewing lesson, and Wilson has heard reports of both moms and 3-year-olds learning to sew for the first time while reading her books. Annually, Hope Chest Legacy sells about 8,000 books and nearly 10,000 sewing kits.

But Wilson plans to shut down her company's physical sales on Jan. 31. The reason? It's not because the homeschooling mother of eight can't find time to manage a business, but because of a sweeping consumer safety law Congress passed last year. The law requires lead testing for almost every substance in products marketed to children 12 and under-and that includes the paper and ink in Wilson's books and the fabric, needles, and buttons in her sewing kits. For every new batch of books or sewing kits she stores in her garage, Wilson would have to pay $1,500 to $4,000 for lead testing. She can't afford it.

"It's insane," she said. "It puts the small business owner in a difficult position because a lot of us [operate] month to month."

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Wilson's business isn't the only one hammered by the new regulations. Across the country, booksellers, toymakers, clothing shops, and others-many of whom didn't realize until November of last year that the law would apply to them-are scrambling to test their products for lead, liquidate stock (Wilson is offering her wholesalers 70 percent off), or return untested merchandise to manufacturers. When the law takes effect Feb. 10, any children's product in the United States with a lead content of more than 600 parts per million will be considered a "banned hazardous substance" and cannot be sold. Items already on store shelves are included in the ban. Whether a toy, a shirt, a book, a compact disc, playground equipment, or a ballpoint pen with a leaded brass tip, each product marketed for children must be stringently tested and certified for lead content-regardless of whether the product has been associated with lead poisoning. Businesses that sell uncertified items may be liable for fines ranging from $100,000 to $15 million.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was ushered through Congress (opposed by only three senators and one representative) at the behest of consumer groups after lead-tainted toys from China made 2007 headlines. Lead exposure in children can cause developmental delays and lessen brain development, and lead is toxic to kidneys and to blood formation, according to Lynn Goldman, a pediatrician and professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Besides mandating a comprehensive system for monitoring lead content in every children's product, the legislation bans certain phthalates (chemicals added to plastics for flexibility) and increases funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Because the act was worded broadly, both the CPSC and businesses are struggling to interpret its full intent before the February deadline. And rather than placing the burden of compliance firmly with manufacturers, it is also a liability for retailers and others with little control over the lead content in products.

As of this writing, the Association of American Publishers had so far unsuccessfully petitioned the CPSC to exclude children's books from lead regulation. It claims the law will pull existing books off shelves and result in a backlog while publishers await test results. Children's clothes makers received an exemption for natural materials, such as cotton and wool, but must still test dyes, zippers, and buttons. Two hundred toymakers have joined the Handmade Toy Alliance (www.handmadetoyalliance.org), which argues the new law will effectively suppress domestically made toys while promoting those made where the problems began: China.

The CPSC has exempted thrift stores from the testing requirements but will still hold them responsible for accidentally selling items that exceed the lead limit. "So the liability is still there," Major George Hood, a spokesman for The Salvation Army, said. "If we have to get out of the business of selling used clothing, it's going to cripple our ability to provide our services for drug and alcohol clients that reside in our facilities."

Hood speculated the Salvation Army could lose $60 million in sales-besides having to pay to dump donated clothes and toys.

"In this economy-a very difficult economy-there is a risk that low-income shoppers aren't going to have any alternatives to full retail price, and we hope we can avoid that."

Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008

• Bans sale of any children's product containing 600 lead parts per million (ppm) starting Feb. 10. Limit drops to 300 ppm Aug. 14.

• Mandates third party lead and phthalate testing, certification, and tracking labels for children's products.

• Bans certain phthalates in toys and toddler care items.

• Mandates choking warning labels in toy catalogs and websites.

• Tightens safety standards on four-wheeled ATVs. Bans new three-wheelers.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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