Small Businesses Balk at New Rules on Lead Testing for Kids’ Products

August 17, 2009

Tighter limits on the amount of lead the government allows in children’s products and a requirement for new tracking labels are stirring fear among small business owners, already hurting in a tough economy.

The new limits and labels, which went into effect last Friday, are required as part of a consumer product safety law passed by Congress last summer in the wake of dozens of recalls of lead-tainted toys.

Consumer advocates hailed the measures. But some small businesses, like American Educational Products in Fort Collins, Colo. — it sells classroom teaching aids like flash cards, animal models, globes and relief maps — say the testing and labeling costs are crippling to their operations even though their products are safe. They want the law amended to exempt products that present little or no risk to young children.

“The challenge as a small business is that I cannot do it all (the testing) immediately,” said Michael Warring, president of AMEP. “I would have to spend a full year of revenue to test every product I sell.”

Warring recently laid off four of his 70 employees. In his 15 years with AMEP, he has not had one safety recall or complaint about lead.

Even so, Warring says he is required to test samplings of all products he makes and sells for young children, which he said costs about $2,000 per product. The tracking labels will add another cost, he says, since they must be a permanent marking on each product.

The new chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Inez Tenenbaum, has tried to reassure businesses that the agency will work with them as it enforces the new requirements.

“We’re going to take into account situations where businesses are making the right efforts to manufacture products safer,” said her chief spokesman, Scott Wolfson. “We are going to continue to put out new rules and new guidance to help companies in that effort.”

The law, known as CPSIA, sets strict standards for lead and chemicals called phthalates when used in toys and products for children 12 and under. Lead can cause irreversible brain damage, and some studies have linked phthalates to reproductive problems.

The bill was signed into law one year ago. Since then, CPSC rules have been trickling out _ explaining who must comply, and how, as well as announcements about delays in enforcement for certain industries.

But the guidance from the agency has been confusing and belated, says Jolie Fay, a mother who runs a home crafts business — Skipping Hippos _ making children’s jackets and fleece ponchos out of her basement in–Portland, Ore.

“My products are mostly fabric, and they’re safe,” Fay said. “Mom-home sewers are being pulled into this law to meet the same standards as big companies like Fisher-Price. It’s not right.”

Fay’s orders began drying up in February, when the lead limits first became effective. On Friday, the limits tightened further, with the amount of lead allowed in kids’ products decreasing to 300 parts per million and 90 ppm for lead paint.

Fay had all the fabrics and buttons tested on her clothing, and she says there was no lead. Still, she says, boutiques stopped calling in orders, too worried that they might lose inventory if a test later turned up positive for lead.

CPSC has issued guidance that natural fabrics like cotton and silk are exempt from the rules, but zippers, buttons and snaps are not.

Wolfson says the agency is working hard to hear the concerns of small business. But, he added, they have a “responsibility to know their obligations and comply with these new safety requirements starting on Friday.”

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