CPSIA roulette

by Walter Olson on February 9, 2009

Guess what? There are naturally occurring variations in lead content within a given run of metal alloy snaps, clasps or grommets. So even if all 20 that you test happen to score below CPSIA’s permitted threshold, you may still wind up incorporating some that fail into your line of garments. And the first you hear about that may be the press release from the state attorney general or private operator angling for settlement money. Aren’t you glad CPSIA was written to include such harsh penalties for inadvertent and unintended violations?

{ 7 comments }

1 Anthony 02.09.09 at 8:45 pm

If your samples are continually coming in near the limit, you’re skirting the edges of the law and should know it. Purer material won’t be 10/10,000 failure rate, it will be much lower — 2% is 2 standard deviations away from the mean, and if you push up to 4 standard deviations (which is a very small change), the error rate is down to 0.32/10,000, so you probably don’t have any bad materials and the odds of any found in testing are very low, and at 5 standard deviations, error rate is less than 1 in a million. In addition, even if your testing doesn’t uncover any bad materials, it is very likely to tell you the range of variance present in your sample, from which you can reasonably predict the accuracy of your test.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to get in trouble by accident, but it’s plenty to engage in rational risk management — just determine the odds that you’re wrong, and count that into your budget analysis.

2 sasmith 02.09.09 at 10:09 pm

here’s a thought. since all these products are now considered toxic and dangerous, it would be a public service to go into the homes of the the folks who voted for this and remove all dangerous toys , clothes, books, electonics and games from their 12 and under children[ for their own protection of course] then see how long it takes for this to be reversed!

3 Carol Baicker-McKee 02.09.09 at 10:42 pm

That may be easy for a manufacturer to notice, Anthony, but for a home crafter using a very small number of snaps, for example, and relying on the manufacturer’s GCC that their product is lead-free (which would be allowed under the one year stay on testing), it would still be easy to get into trouble – and that trouble isn’t negligible; even accidental use can lead to $100,000 in fines and fine years in prison. You may counter that the crafter should test every item, but for a typical crafter with a small profit margin, the $5 per itemcharged by the cheapest people doing XRF testing (like smartmama.com) plus shipping charges makes testing a business killer, especially if there are a number of different components that need to be tested. And that’s the cheapest available now – the cost rises to hundreds of dollars per component once wet testing goes into effect. Even worse, imagine if you’re making products for charities, and you’re not making any money to begin with – are you supposed to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to make something to donate?

I for one will no longer make any products for kids under 12 – just not worth the hassle, expense, and fear. It’s always been more profitable for me to make things aimed at teens and adults anyway; I made stuff for kids because I felt like it was important to make high quality things for them and I was good at it. I’m sorry to give it up, especially my charity projects like quilts for Project Linus, bereavement quilts for families that lost children, and hats for preemies. But it’s not worth living in constant fear of being sued or jailed.

I’m a children’s book writer and illustrator, but like most illustrators I make way more money selling my original art than I make in advances and royalties. Without the possibility of that income, I think I’ll switch to writing YA novels, which pay better anyway. (My artwork is one of a kind, and I’m not exactly going to make two of every illustration, just so I can have one destroyed in wet testing when that goes into effect. In addition, it’s 3-D and has a zillion small parts, which means the art from my baby and toddler books can’t pass the small parts test. I’m not confident that it would pass the lead limits (I sometimes use pipe cleaners, which may contain lead) and I also use polymer clay, which has phthalates – and although I don’t think the art would count as a toy or child care item, I wouldn’t want to bet my life that some attorney might decide to say it was. Never mind that babies would never get to gnaw on my art — I only sell it framed and behind glass and I can’t imagine the parent wealthy enough not to care if her baby chews on a piece of original art that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. (Not to mention the parent who lets her baby chew on something with glass – but maybe we’re about to outlaw framed art and windows in the homes of babies too. Oh, and glassware and china. Can’t be too careful when it comes to safety.)

If the folks who pushed for this law really cared about children, they would direct regulation — or enforcement — narrowly at the source of the real problem: manufacturers from China who violated the existing laws on lead in paint. And they would devote the considerable resources this law will consume to eliminating the bigger sources of children’s lead poisoning, namely older homes with lead paint, and lead in the soil, coupled with poor nutrition which increases a child’s risk of poisoning. (Plus a handful of kids are exposed through lead on the clothes and skin of family members who work in lead-intensive industry.) The activists would offer information and let parents make their own decisions about whether their 11 year old is at risk of chewing on the valve in his bicycle tire or their six year old likely to suck on the grommets in her shoes or their 8 year old at risk of eating his pre-1985 book that has a very small risk of some lead in the ink.

This law stinks. And it’s going to do much, much greater harm to America’s children that it prevents. Imo it can’t be fixed through exclusions or stays — it needs to be repealed and lawmakers need to try again, with input from small businesses, libraries, thrift stores and child development experts. And maybe some experts on risk assessment too – because obviously the folks who crafted and passed this law have no sense of what the real threats are to children.

4 Doug 02.10.09 at 8:02 am

If your samples are continually coming in near the limit, you’re skirting the edges of the law and should know it. Purer material won’t be 10/10,000 failure rate, it will be much lower — 2% is 2 standard deviations away from the mean, and if you push up to 4 standard deviations (which is a very small change), the error rate is down to 0.32/10,000, so you probably don’t have any bad materials and the odds of any found in testing are very low, and at 5 standard deviations, error rate is less than 1 in a million. In addition, even if your testing doesn’t uncover any bad materials, it is very likely to tell you the range of variance present in your sample, from which you can reasonably predict the accuracy of your test.

This doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to get in trouble by accident, but it’s plenty to engage in rational risk management — just determine the odds that you’re wrong, and count that into your budget analysis.

Come on, just because you have a certification, doesn’t mean the supplier in China actually did the testing. China is famous for cutting the costs past the bone. It certainly is believable that a manufacturer could knowingly sell or use buttons, zippers, etc in their clothing. I bet there would be no defense to this.

5 pete 02.10.09 at 12:51 pm

Lead is often added to steel to increase its formability and machinability at the expense of making the steel softer. But the added lead doesn’t actually dissolve in the steel, and it is not homogeneous in the material, but tends to clump. It also tends to smear and to transfer to the tools that are used for sampling. I’m not certain that all the labs that are testing for lead in steel realize how difficult it is to exclude cross-contamination and to determine lead in steel. Under these circumstances it is very much up to the testing labs to show that any positive results for lead are not false positives.

6 pete 02.10.09 at 1:01 pm

And, I’ve got to get a word in on phthalates too. The main type of plastic that contains phthalates is plasticized polyvinyl chloride (pvc). This very common plastic has been nearly ubiquitous for the last fifty to sixty years. Besides flexible children’s toys, it is used in shower curtains, rainwear, baby pants (and adult incontinence pants), aprons, and capes. It is used for the clear flexible tubing in food processing plants, laboratories of all kinds, and hospitals. Bags made of it are used in hospitals for storing blood and saline solutions. One would certainly think that if phthalates were actually harmful to humans, there would be some evidence of that by now. I believe that the CPSIA requirement to test for phthalates is just plain stupid and a bad use of scientific resources.

7 pia 02.11.09 at 8:42 am

Any suggestions for retailers who insist – one failing piece and the whole lot needs to be returned to the supplier? Or better – testing reports from their “preferred” testing facility vary substantially from other testing facilities that are CPSC certified, but the retailed won’t recognize?

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