Smaller Businesses Worry New Toy Safety Law Goes Too Far

By Suzanne Perez Tobias | January 20, 2009

Makers of handmade toys, secondhand stores and others who make or sell children’s products fear that new government regulations could soon put them out of business.

At issue is the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, passed by Congress last year in response to widespread recalls of products that posed a threat to children, including toys made with lead or lead-based paint.

“It’s pretty simple: If they follow it to the letter of the law, we’ll have to close,” said Christiane Doom, owner of Hannah Banana, a children’s consignment store in Wichita.

“Everyone’s in shock. They’re like, ‘No, this can’t be right.’ It’s unbelievable.”

The legislation, set to take effect Feb. 10, mandates independent, third-party testing and batch labeling of all children’s products — not just toys, but everything from cloth diapers to hair bows.

Supporters say the measure is reasonable and necessary. They point to recent recalls of lead-tainted products that range from toys such as Polly Pocket, Barbie and Thomas the Tank Engine to children’s jewelry, craft sets and shoelace charms.

“This (law) is trying to prevent those recalls before the products even get to the shelf,” said Jan Stegelman, coordinator of Safe Kids Kansas. “It’s good news for consumers.”

For large manufacturers such as Mattel, Lego and Little Tikes, the mandated tests are expected to cost between $300 and $4,000 per toy. Spread over hundreds of thousands — often millions — of units, the cost to companies and consumers would be almost negligible.

Many small and home-based businesses, however, say they can’t afford to test items they create and sell one at a time.

Shanell Fisher, a Newton, Kansas, mom who sells handmade dolls, all-natural baby wipes and other products through her Etsy.com store, Earth Baby Boutique, says the new law could put many entrepreneurs like her out of business.

“I’m just telling everyone, ‘If you’re in the market for handmade toys, buy before Feb. 10,’ ” Fisher said. “Pretty much everyone I know is just going to stop selling their toys altogether.”

That may not seem far-reaching. But Web sites such as eBay and Etsy that provide an easy way to buy and sell handmade items — combined with an increased consumer interest in locally made and eco-friendly products — have prompted a sort of handmade toy renaissance.

“We were just starting to do really well. People connect with what we’re trying to do here,” said Doom, the consignment store owner.

Fisher’s products include play food items — pancakes, fried eggs, sugar cookies with embroidered sprinkles — crafted from eco-felt and filled with cotton batting. She started making the items for her children because she didn’t want them playing with mass-market plastic toys, then began selling them online.

“The huge irony here is that those of us who care the most about safety — people who prefer handmade because we know it’s safe — are about to get hurt the most,” Fisher said.

Her concerns may soon be addressed. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is responsible for enforcing the new law has tentatively agreed to exempt clothing, toys and other goods made from natural materials such as cotton and wood.

No final rules will be approved, however, until Feb. 10, when they go into effect.

That leaves store owners like Doom, who runs Hannah Banana, in a quandary:

Do they continue to operate as usual, hoping regulations change before the February deadline? Do they discount items they won’t be allowed to sell after that date? Or do they assume, as many are, that no lead-paint police will come knocking anytime soon?

“I’ve contacted our lawyer. I’ve contacted (Sen. Sam) Brownback’s office, (U.S. Rep. Todd) Tiahrt’s office, just anyone who will listen,” Doom said.

“And we’re just praying, waiting to hear back from somebody — anybody.”

The way the regulations are written, any product not tested for lead content — including toys, clothing and handmade children’s items — would be considered hazardous waste and would be illegal to sell after Feb. 10.

That worries Renee Croitoru, director of the Treehouse, a nonprofit ministry that serves mothers and children in need.

The group stocks its thrift store with donated baby goods, which it sells for pennies on the dollar to moms in the program. Those sales make up about 10 percent of the Treehouse’s budget.

“Our mothers are being challenged to make their dollars stretch,” Croitoru said. “If this (law) goes into effect, I don’t know where these women will be able to buy cribs and car seats. Many will just go without.”

In a move designed to clarify the law’s effect on thrift stores and resale shops, the Consumer Product Safety Commission on Thursday said the law “does not require resellers to test children’s products in inventory for compliance with the lead limit before they are sold.”

However, “resellers that do sell products in violation of the new limits could face civil and/or criminal penalties,” according to the written statement.

Agency officials said they intend to focus enforcement efforts on “products of greatest risk and largest exposure,” including cribs, playpens, children’s jewelry, painted wooden or metal toys and toys that lack required age warnings.

“I completely understand where retailers are coming from, because they’re just trying to be good citizens and … avoid liability,” said Cherie Sage, outreach coordinator for Safe Kids Kansas.

“What the CPSC is going for is to test things from larger retailers and manufacturers — big-box stores where there are thousands of items,” she said.

“They’re not looking at going into a Goodwill store in Topeka, Kansas, and finding one singular toy and saying, ‘Oh, this one’s unsafe.’ That’s not the intent of the law at all.”

Heather Anderson, owner of Blessed Nest, a Baxter Springs company that produces organic nursing pillows, said she hopes the law eventually is amended to focus on large toy manufacturers and imports often seen on toy-recall alerts.

Her pillows, though made with certified organic fabrics, filled with pesticide-free buckwheat hulls and shipped in recyclable packaging, could soon be illegal to sell as a children’s product unless she pays $160,000 to have the entire line tested for lead.

“I keep thinking somebody’s going to wake up and say, ‘Nooooo, that’s not at all what we meant,’ ” Anderson said.

“I haven’t talked to or heard from a single person who’s against setting standards for safety. Everybody is for it. But this is so wide-sweeping and so ridiculous that it’s actually counterproductive.”

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Information from: The Wichita Eagle, http://www.kansas.com

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