Incredible, but true: until this past Friday, America was on a fast track to outlaw grandmothers selling children's sweaters for charity.
For now, Grandma has dodged a bullet. On February 10, makers of children's products faced onerous new regulations that would have criminalized a thriving cottage industry of handmade crafters, and threatened a vast section of the economy already gripped by a deep recession. They have won a temporary respite, but still face an uphill battle to reform the law.
This past August — spurred on by very real concerns about the safety of imported toys from places like China, where regulation is distressingly lax — Congress voted overwhelmingly to pass the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). But did they go too far? As a result of the new law, all children's products — yes, all, from picture books to pants — will be considered dangerous until proven otherwise.
Imagine that Congress had decided to fight drunk driving by setting up permanent ID checkpoints on every road in America, and you might begin to understand the frustration of those who make or sell anything for children these days. Children's businesses, both large and small, have been calling February 10 "National Bankruptcy Day." On that date, according to the CPSIA, the total lead content of any children's product must fall below 600 parts per million. The lead limits will then be tightened again: in August, to 300 ppm, and in 2011, to 100 ppm. The law also bans phthalates, a family of plastic-softening chemicals that have been linked to reproductive health problems.
Lead is highly toxic, especially to children, and the new levels seem reasonable for toys that young children might chew on. (The EPA considers soil with more than 400 ppm too contaminated for playgrounds.) But the law's focus is much broader than toys; manufacturers are worried about items like bicycle spokes and ballpoint pens, which often contain some lead but are not usually seen as a health hazard. Most troubling of all to toymakers is the red tape surrounding the new limits. Under the CPSIA, any children's item, even a hand-knit sweater, will become contraband unless it has undergone expensive testing and has proper papers — it cannot be legally sold, traded, or even given away.
On Friday (January 30), the Consumer Product Safety Commission — the federal agency responsible for enforcing the law — granted makers of children's toys, books, and clothes a welcome reprieve of sorts. From now till next February, the CPSC said, makers can sell their wares without testing. But they still have to meet the new limits. Thus, the announcement is only a stay of execution, dubbed by one small-business blogger "just the epidural, issuing some relief and stamina-gathering before the real pushing begins." While the clock ticks, indie artisans and small businesses will be fighting both Congress and the CPSC to save their livelihoods.
Good guys finish last
Ashland toy importer Rob Wilson considers himself one of the good guys. In a market flooded with soulless plastic Chinese imports, he makes his living selling European cloth puppets and wooden blocks to independent stores like Stellabella and Black Ink. "There's a lot of frustration," says Wilson. "It's a tragic irony that we're the ones bearing the brunt of the law."
Wilson recently spent two days in his warehouse shooting wooden toys and organic stuffed animals with a rented X-ray gun, looking for lead he knew full well he wouldn't find. Even though the CPSC now says it won't require testing for another year, Wilson says he has to do it anyway. Anxious to avoid liability, the stores he sells to demand it.
"The standard hasn't gone away," he says. "My customers are still going to want certificates, or some kind of statement from us that we meet the standard."
But DIY testing doesn't satisfy the law; it only buys Wilson a little more time. By next February, when the stay of enforcement runs out, Wilson must have all his items tested by a third-party lab, at costs ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per item — costs that must be paid for by the manufacturer or importer. Since it costs just as much to test an item whether you sell 50 or 50,000 of it, Wilson's company could end up spending as much on testing as a much bigger importer.
If the law doesn't change, says Wilson, he will have to drop about 90 percent of his products — and hope he can sell all of them off before next year, or he will have to dump them in a landfill, without recouping a penny of their cost.
"I know the products that are in danger," he says. Kallisto, a line of organic animals stuffed with wool and sewn by stay-at-home mothers in Germany, will probably be one. Since Wilson is the sole importer, they'll be completely shut out of the US market.