CPSIA: furor builds over toyless shelves

by Walter Olson on January 11, 2009

In our previous posts about the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), the federal law passed by Congress last year in the wake of the panic over Chinese toys with lead paint, we noted that it threatened to drive out of business a lot of small makers of wooden toys and other childrens’ products who cannot afford to spend thousands of dollars per lot to confirm the absence of lead paint (or phthalates, another banned substance) in their wares. A group called Handmade Toy Alliance has formed to call attention to the law’s burden on small manufacturers, and offers further detail at its website.

As reports in the last week make clear, however, a second economic disaster is also looming: thrift and secondhand stores around the country sell a large volume of clothing, toys and other items meant for use by those under 12, and are now exposed to stringent liability under the law. “The reality is that all this stuff will be dumped in the landfill,” predicted Adele Meyer, executive director of the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops. Among the biggest losers if stores stop selling secondhand kids’ items: poorer parents who would have trouble dressing a growing family if they had to buy, say, winter coats new for $30 rather than used for $5 or $10. The regs are scheduled to take effect Feb. 10.

On January 8, as press coverage mounted, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) rushed out a supposed clarification of the regulations: thrift shops, eBay sellers and other second-hand retailers would not be compelled to institute testing programs on all items sold, the way manufacturers would. But the commission made clear that if the stores do wind up selling any secondhand products containing the substances — phthalates, for example, are often found in bendy plastics — they face both criminal liability and civil fines (which run up to $100,000). It isn’t required that the store know or should have known that a pre-2009 item was in violation, and of course it isn’t required that anyone be harmed by the good (the entire episode has gone on with a near-total absence of any showing that actual kids had been harmed by the products swept from American shelves).

None of which seems to faze some advocates of the new measure. At Law and More, Jane Genova quotes Sue Gunderson, executive director of an anti-lead-paint group called ClearCorps:

What thrift stores seem to be requesting [in Gunderson's view] is for the right to expose children to health and safety hazards. “Let’s get our priorities straight,” she insists. She goes on to pose this rhetorical question: “Mmmmmm, do we want cheap, second-hand toys that could damage children?” She frames this issue as a “business” one which the thrift-store industry will have to solve just as will every other business impacted by the new act.

If you think this is all too crazy to actually be happening, wait until you read the Boston Phoenix’s piece on the law’s threat to libraries:

“We are very busy trying to come up with a way to make it not apply to libraries,” said [Emily] Sheketoff [associate executive director of the American Library Association]. But unless she succeeds in lobbying Capitol Hill for an exemption, she believes libraries have two choices under the CPSIA: “Either they take all the children’s books off the shelves,” she says, “or they ban children from the library.”

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New York Times on CPSIA: “needless fears that the law could injure smaller enterprises”
02.18.09 at 11:43 am

{ 7 comments }

1 Wacky Hermit 01.11.09 at 3:08 pm

Thanks for blogging about this! May I encourage your readers to participate in the CPSIA mail-in protest?

While I think the librarians are being slightly hyperbolic (IANAL but my reading of CPSIA indicates it doesn’t mandate current collections of kids’ books be pre-emptively destroyed), I find it so hard to believe that the same people who would want GM bailed out to save millions of jobs won’t lift a finger to help those millions of jobs in the children’s product industry that aren’t asking for a handout. I really want to slap the PIRG types who think we should all just “figure it out” because we’re expendable, evil businesspeople wearing our top hats and monocles and rolling around on the piles of money we saved by replacing organic cotton with pure lead in our products.

2 Save Kids Resale 01.11.09 at 5:07 pm

Thanks so very much for writing about this issue.

We are angered that the CPSC appeared to attempt to intentionally squash mounting uproar over this issue by issuing this ‘supposed clarification’ – and sent it to the news media one full day before it appeared on their RSS Feed.

We don’t want to change our career! We don’t want to be bootleggers!
http://www.savekidsresale.com

3 Holly Jahangiri 01.11.09 at 5:23 pm

How about a warning on thrift stores that states: “Older products for children, such as [provide some examples, because frankly, I'm at a loss] may contain lead or phthlates in levels greater than the limits imposed by the CPSIA. Buy at your own risk.”

Make the parents liable if something bought at a thrift store harms their child.

How many MORE kids are killed each year because they ran out into the street after a toy or a pet that did NOT contain toxic substances? Let’s ban cars and balls and dogs.

The idea of protecting kids from harmful substances is laudable; the idea of penalizing unscrupulous suppliers and manufacturers who would carelessly or, as an intentional cost cutting measure, use substandard materials is also a good one. But that’s not what this law, as written, does.

4 Matthew 01.12.09 at 12:12 pm

For all the talk on the left of the Precautionary Principle, it seems like it would be best applied to new regulations, and not scientific innovations. If only we could resolve to never pass a law until we can PROVE that we know all of the potential unintended consequences and side effects, the world would be a much better place. But I strongly suspect that advocates of said Principle would be horrified to think of the idea of it being applied to their own actions rather than someone else’s.

5 Dawn Michelle 01.13.09 at 8:40 pm

Hello,
I urge you to visit http://www.ReformCPSIA.org. I am working with Rachele to gather supporters for the lawsuit. The site will have information regarding the suit and I will be updating it regularly – Please subscribe so that you may receive updates when posted.

If you are interested in participating in the lawsuit you may submit a request form via the website. Just follow the links and the form will be at the bottom of the page. You are under no obligation by filling out the form.

I also urge you to sign the petition I sponsor here: http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/reform-cpsia-hr4040.html#sign

Sincerely,
Dawn Michelle
dlapolla@gmail.com

6 product safety is my life 01.14.09 at 10:53 am

I am in charge of product safety for a major multinational company with a very substantial children’s business. Yes, the CPSIA is poorly drafted, unrealistic, and badly thought out. In short, it is a huge challenge for us, as it is for everyone. But it clearly does not apply to most children’s BOOKS. The only books it applies to are bathtub books and other books that are plastic or vinyl or designed to have play value in some way. Ordinary children’s books are not affected at all, and the libraries are being irresponsible in suggesting otherwise.

7 Walter Olson 01.14.09 at 1:39 pm

On the contrary, I believe the CPSC has now confirmed (as against some earlier speculation that had circulated to the contrary) that ordinary newly manufactured children’s books, not just the vinyl play kind, are indeed subject to regulation under the law. For more, see this CPSC correspondence (PDF).

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