Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Roads to Hell and Lead-Free Toys are Paved with Good Intentions

As a mom and someone who cares about the environment, I'm all for lead-free toys. I've previously posted about using the lead check tool from HealthyToys.org, and added their widget to this blog. I've followed this issue as part of my day job and lamented with other parents across the country every time there are more toy recalls because of lead levels. But my heart is just sick because of the unintentional consequences of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) as it is currently written. Though the law was certainly intended to protect children from lead poisoning and to require problem manufacturers to test materials before selling them, it is having an impact on small businesses, particularly those that produce handmade toys, as well as booksellers, libraries and charities.

The CPSIA does not simply cover toys, but rather "children's products"--this is a broad term, and includes things like books, child care items (like cloth diapers, for example) and clothing. Basically, children's products are "any consumer product designed or intended primarily for children 12 years of age or younger" (Wikipedia article on CPSIA). The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Guidance on the CPSIA for Small Businesses, Resellers, Crafters and Charities states the following: "The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) is a sweeping new law that impacts a broad spectrum of our economy. From manufacturers of toys to the kids that play with them, everyone is affected in some way -- even those who make and donate products to hospitals and charities. There are new rules to be understood and adopted for everyone from the largest global manufacturer to the crafter working in the family workshop to the mom-and-pop shop on the corner. Indeed, all children’s products including toys, books, child care articles and clothing are covered in different ways by this law, and there are different rules for different products."

The basic idea is that any manufacturer of children's products must test their materials to make sure they meet safe lead levels. Sounds simple and like good common sense, right? As is often the case, what sounds good on paper is revealed to be more complex and troublesome in practice. Consider the crafter who makes handmade toys and sells them online and at craft fairs. While we as consumers, and the crafter herself, would all agree that we would like to make sure the materials used to produce the crafter's items are at safe levels for lead content, how is the crafter working from her home supposed to afford the testing and documentation required, which would be the same required of a large factory making similar toys? What if the crafter is reasonably sure her materials are lead free, but must still prove that they are with expensive testing? Ultimately, the crafter might decide that such testing is simply not within her capability and thus that she should cease making handmade toys altogether. One might say this would be a small price to pay to ensure the safety of children's products, but do we really want to see a shift away from locally produced, handmade items to more factory produced, assembly line items, especially given the current economy and the fact that many small businesses are struggling to stay afloat period? Putting small businesses and work-at-home-moms out of business is not what anyone involved in the creation and passing of the CPSIA intended, but it may well be the consequence in many instances.

I was dismayed earlier while catching up on some of the blogs I follow, that even booksellers and libraries may end up being adversely affected by this law. Consider this post from Scribbler over on Vintage Kids' Books My Kid Loves. This woman sells vintage children's books on Etsy.com. The result of the law will be that her Etsy store becomes limited to selling books printed between 1985 and 1989, since Etsy only allows the sale of books 20 years or older (by their definition of "vintage"). In the exemptions to the CPSIA available on guidance web site linked to above, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) states that "until the Commission issues final rules in these areas, certain materials can be used in making products or be sold as children's products without risk of sanction or penalties by the Commission provided the manufacturer, distributor or seller does not have actual knowledge that the products have more than the acceptable lead limit. The Commission generally will not prosecute someone for making, selling or distributing items in these categories (see Table B) even if it turns out that such an item actually contains more than 600 ppm lead." "Table B" includes "Children's books printed after 1985 that are conventionally printed and intended to be read, as opposed to used for play." Ok, cool, though I don't quite understand the distinction between books intended to be "read" or "used for play" (book frisbee, anyone?). What about books printed before 1985, including lots of classics that may be sitting in used book stores, regular book stores, thrift stores, libraries, and sold by vintage book dealers, such as the aforementioned Scribbler? Apparently such books can be sold as collectibles, as long as they're not really intended for use by children. So does that mean, as Scribbler wonders aloud on her blog, that books printed before 1985 sitting in the children's departments of libraries may need to be tested in order to continue to be used by children? Facing such expense, might many small municipal libraries choose to detroy such books rather than go through the process necessary to keep them? Scribbler writes: "So it seems smaller, independent booksellers who know the value of these books are boxing their pre-85 product and holding on to them in storage until this madness blows over. Other larger thrift store chains like Goodwill are pulling the books and just dumping them in the garbage. I am sick about the whole thing...I won't even go into how this will effect libraries, but just imagine your neighborhood library... over half of its children's section disappearing overnight... all of its out-of-print titles, vanishing into the dumpster out back." The potential impact on availability of books for kids, not to mention the environmental impact of detroying inventories---sigh. My head really hurts.

I could write on and on about potential problems with the implementation of this law and how it might adversely affect book sellers, crafters and small businesses, but you don't want to read the longest post known to man (it may be too late for that), and frankly, I'm still trying to learn about this law--I'm no expert when it comes to exactly what this law will require and what the CPSC is doing to deal with potential problems. Off the cuff, I hope that some sort of financial assistance is made available to small businesses for testing, although given the current state of the world, I have no idea where such money might come from--the government has bigger fish to bail out right now. I'm worried about how the law will affect books most particularly; I love books, and old books especially. Newly printed copies of books just don't have the same magical quality sometimes, and some books went out of print before 1985 that are still worth reading!

Am I glad the government is trying to enforce stricter safety standards for children's products? Absolutely. Am I confused as heck about all the different requirements, exemptions and hoops to jump through? Oh yeah. Am I worried that many small businesses and crafters will need to go out of business or change their focus because of this law? Yes. Do I have a solution for how to provide safe toys without causing all these problems? Right now, no. Do I want to stay apprised of how this drama unfolds and how these issues are dealt with? Yes, and I want you to be able to as well. So, here are some links to related resources that you may want to check out:

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