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CPSIA and apparel/needle trades

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  • Understatement alert: per the official Congressional Research Service on Capitol Hill, “For the moment…one thing seems certain: implementation of the CPSIA is not going well.” [report in PDF format courtesy ShopFloor]
  • In Wisconsin, the Madison Children’s Museum has for the past 21 years based its annual fundraiser (July 18, this year) on a big discount sale of American Girl dolls and accessories. Worse luck for them.
  • “Anti-recycling”, maybe? Is there a word for what happens when you yank perfectly safe, useful products off shelves by the ton and send them instead to landfills?
  • Blast from the past dept.: if you think Public Citizen has made a mess of the risk and science issues in its advocacy on behalf of CPSIA, you should check out the world-class mess it made when it enlisted in the trial lawyer campaign against silicone breast implants, to name but such one campaign of many.
  • Powersports dealers wary of whether new stay of enforcement really protects them [DealerNews, Sioux City (Iowa) Journal]
  • The first senior, influential Senate Democrat to acknowledge that CPSIA needs fixing? Montana’s Max Baucus is willing at least to sign on to a legalize-minibikes bill.
  • In the comments section on NPR’s phthalates story earlier this month, one of the most-recommended comments was that by Steven Tesney of Houston, who wrote, “As a result of CPSIA and the surrounding political grandstanding, my small home-based company will be going out of business. I design clothing for ‘Alternative’ families with infants, toddlers & kids. My products are organic and use natural dyes but because of new testing requirements that are completely cost prohibitive, I will be forced – along with hundreds of thousands of crafters, artisans and other small business owners – to close my doors. The only companies that will be able to afford the testing will be large corporations (many from China). Mass produced goods win while homemade, handcrafted goods lose. Say goodbye to the charming hand carved wooden toys & crocheted baby caps that you take to baby showers. Say hello to a plethora of licensed products staring back at your children.”
  • “CPSIA and the black market” [Wacky Hermit]

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Public domain image courtesy ChildrensLibrary.org: Walter Crane, illustrator, The Baby’s Aesop (1887)

It’s pulling them off and replacing them with new buttons so as to bring children’s clothing into CPSIA compliance.

A Family Dollar store in Maryland was removing kids’ shoes from the shelf and destroying them, thus baffling an onlooker who wondered why they couldn’t have been donated instead. (Because that’s what the law says.) More on that episode: Deputy Headmistress.

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Many are taking no action to save themselves from the law, but — as Kathleen Fasanella explains — act as if paralyzed by the February “stay” with its illusion of hope.

Posting may be slower here over the next few days because of the holiday (and comments-moderation may be erratic at best, for which apologies in advance). If you’d like to catch up with CPSIA reading, though, there’s plenty of it:

  • Excellent reporting in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel last weekend, based on interviews with local people affected by the law, including a maker of kids’ clothing, a doll maker (more), and so forth. Virtually all of them contribute a striking fact, a memorable quote, or both: “Mark Kohlenberg, owner of the Umi children’s shoe company in Grafton, estimates that the required testing will cost his company $200,000 a year. … ‘This law was written one night in Washington when everyone was drunk,’ said a frustrated Peter Reynolds of the Little Toy Co. in Germantown. ‘It’s impossible to read and impossible to enforce.'”
  • Before moving on from the state of Wisconsin, let Valerie Jacobsen’s comment be recorded: “Canvassed Janesville, Wisconsin thrift stores March 31. In an entire city of population 60,000 there was one piece of used clothing for a baby of six months or less”. (Further: ShopFloor).
  • A report in the Northfield, Minn. paper on the vintage-kids’-books situation contains a line almost too depressing to pass along: “Congressman John Kline responded and said efforts are underway to change the law, but with the focus on larger budget issues he admitted it could be years [emphasis added] before this gets another look.” More: Deputy Headmistress.
  • “The Myth of Good Intentions” [James Wilson, DownsizeDC]
  • “$1,500 to test one clutch ball that retails for $16.50″: a letter to President Obama [Jill Chuckas of Handmade Toy Alliance at Change.org]
  • Rick Woldenberg, running his family’s educational-toy company, remembers himself as the most apolitical person you would want to meet. How’d he turn into a nonstop organizer of the reform effort? [Story of My Life]
  • “When I first heard about CPSIA I actually cried. I didn’t see how they could pass something so stupid.” [11-year-old Lizi, at AmendTheCPSIA.com]
  • To grasp the immense scale of Congress’s blunder with this law, “follow a blog like Overlawyered“. Thanks! [Hugh Hewitt, The Examiner; and more, including radio questioning of Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), and John Ensign (R-Nev.)]

Formidable when united
Public domain image from Walter Crane, Baby’s Own Aesop (1887), courtesy Children’s Library.

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Major story by Jon Hamilton on yesterday’s NPR “Morning Edition”: “A new federal ban on chemical compounds used in rubber duckies and other toys isn’t necessary, say the government scientists who studied the problem.” “Now they tell us,” writes Carter Wood. More from Jonathan Adler @ Volokh and commenters.

Although most coverage of the CPSIA debacle (this site’s included) has focused on the lead rules, the phthalates ban (phthalates are an ingredient often used to make plastic soft and bendable) is also extraordinarily burdensome, for a number of reasons: 1) as readers may recall, a successful lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council and others forced the last-minute retroactive banning of already-existing playthings and child care items, costing business billions in inventory and other losses; 2) vast numbers of vintage dolls, board games and other existing playthings are noncompliant, which means they cannot legally be resold even at garage sales, let alone thrift or consignment shops, and are marked for landfills instead; 3) obligatory lab testing to prove the non-presence of phthalates in newly made items is even more expensive than testing to prove the non-presence of lead. The phthalate ban is also an important contributor to the burden of the law on the apparel industry (the ingredient has often been used in screen printing on t-shirts and similar items) and books (“book-plus” items with play value often have plastic components). AmendTheCPSIA.com has reprinted a letter from Robert Dawson of Good Times Inc., an amusement maker.

Earlier coverage: Feb. 6 (NRDC and allies win court case on retroactivity); Feb. 7 (various points, including Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s vow that his office will “take whatever steps are necessary [emphasis added] to ensure this phthalate ban is enforced”); Feb. 12 (what ingredients in playthings are going to replace phthalates, and are those ingredients going to be more safe or less?); Mar. 4 (vintage dolls); Mar. 11 (California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein were particularly identified with pushing the phthalates ban to enactment).

P.S. Environmentalists disputing the NPR coverage: Jennifer & Jeremiah @ ZRecommends, Jennifer Taggart (The Smart Mama) in NPR comments. And Sacramento attorney Anthony Caso has a backgrounder for the Washington Legal Foundation (PDF) with more about the CPSC, the NRDC, and maneuvering on phthalates.

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In some ways the most distinctive costs of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act are the human-scale kind that are hard to measure — the handicrafters’ livelihoods blasted, the families unable to find sturdy winter clothes at the Goodwill, the kids who can’t get their dirtbikes serviced, the threats to vintage children’s books and to small-run items for special-needs kids. poorwidowfrombabylon2But there are also a number of measurable, tangible economic costs that might capture lawmakers’ attention, and which affect larger, more sophisticated actors as well as the small producers, dealers and families that have found it so difficult to make their voice heard in Washington.

  • A survey by the Toy Industries of America says the law has already cost toy businesses more than $2 billion [Playthings, Toy News]. As readers will recall, the minibike/powersports industry projects that the ban on its youth products will cost $1 billion by year’s end. That’s $3 billion right there, representing only two of the many industries hit by the act; it doesn’t include (for example) apparel, resale (two apparel-making groups report $700 million in stranded inventory, costs to Goodwill and Salvation Army may exceed $270 million), books, school and party supplies, sporting goods, furniture, and so forth.
  • The stock price of well-known kids’-apparel retailer Gymboree slid by 40 percent overnight early this month “on news that it took massive inventory write-offs in the most recent quarter and suffered sharp margin declines and sales losses, all as a result of the CPSIA”. At a conference call with investors, Gymboree chairman/CEO Matt McCauley noted that phthalates are found “in many screenprints”, which makes their ban an important issue for apparel. Remember the court’s last-minute ruling that the phthalates ban would have to be retroactive to existing inventory, even though the CPSC had given guidance to manufacturers that only post-Feb. 10 production would be affected? Attorney Aaron Colangelo of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who had litigated that case successfully, was quite dismissive about the difficulties of compliance at the time. Well, according to McCauley, that one decision rendered 1.7 million units of inventory at his chain unsalable. “As many of you know, we operate on a nine to 12-month product cycle,” he told the investors. But of course few on Capitol Hill seem to have thought it amiss for new rules to be imposed within a period of a few months, or, as with the court reversal, a few days.
  • Auction Bytes: “On March 14, 2009, Amazon.com will remove approximately 2,500 products from the Toys and Baby categories in order to comply with the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA). The company said it had not received certification of CPSIA compliance from the manufacturers of those products. Amazon will cancel all seller offers against the ASINs, and their detail pages will be removed from the site.” (company’s statement). For readers who are new to the subject, that does not imply that any of the 2,500 items pose any serious risk, nor does it imply that any particular item would fail to pass the new thresholds with flying colors. oldwomantossedup2In many instances it indicates only that the makers have not gotten their ducks in a row to obtain GCCs, possibly because they’re unfamiliar with the process, or can’t afford the tests, or plan to get out of the business soon.
  • Note that as in the Amazon case, the much-publicized stay of CPSC enforcement for a year applying to most newly manufactured goods doesn’t in practice protect small makers from seeing their product lines squeezed out of major channels of commerce if they fail to launch a compliance program (no matter how unlikely it is that their knitted booties or wooden puzzles contain lead). To cover themselves from legal attack, deep-pocket retailers demand GCCs (general certificates of compliance). Last month, apparel-maker mentor Kathleen Fasanella wrote: “Most (okay, all) of the retailers I’ve spoken to, are still requiring GCCs [despite the stay]. Furthermore, they are enforcing the August standard of 300ppm.”
  • Plum Privy has been compiling estimated costs of the law from news reports, with the tally already exceeding $4 billion. Persons in affected lines of work may want to check in at that site to offer additional information or refinements.
  • Understatement of the year? Writing in Apparel mag, lawyers with Mintz Levin call the law “extremely burdensome and bewildering“.

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stuffedpatchworkturtleNo, discarding 500 once-loved stuffed animals doesn’t really amount to much of a story amid scenes of billion-dollar disruptions caused by this law elsewhere around the country. But if you’re one of the people who run the Second Fling consignment shop in Goldsboro, N.C., it might still seem kind of sad.

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With large inventories of kid-sized motorbikes, mini-ATVs, and similar products rendered worthless and unsalable under tarps or in back storage rooms, the Motorcycle Industry Council now estimates that the economic damage from the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act in its sector of the economy alone could reach $1 billion in 2009 if Congress does not act to restore the products’ legality. Joe Delmont at DealerNews has more information on how that figure was arrived at. Two weeks ago we cited an estimate that the frozen inventory alone exceeds $100 million in value; the larger figure adds in the cost of payroll and insurance at dealerships while they wait for the ban to be lifted, lost service and accessory sales, and so forth. It apparently does not count harms to tourism and recreation sectors in parts of the country that draw a family vacation trade based on use of the vehicles (see, e.g., ShareTrails.org, Americans for Responsible Recreational Access). Since the vehicles are intended for outdoor use, the weeks leading up to and including spring — in other words, now — are ordinarily their prime selling season. Some recent coverage previously unlinked: Chico, Calif., Enterprise-Record, WDAY Fargo, N.D., Orlando, Fla. Local6, WCTV Tallahassee, Fla., Gloversville, N.Y. Leader-Herald, Kingsport, Tenn. Times-News. Forums: cpsia-central, VitalMX, Motorcycle Addicts, and many more.

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The minibikes fall into a category of products for which the drafters of CPSIA made it particularly hard to obtain exemptions, namely products that concededly do contain a more than infinitesimal quantity of lead in a normal and accessible component. Yesterday, the CPSC published (PDF) its proposed rule on the subject. In it, the commission staff explain the stringent legal requirements governing such waivers, and why they often do not allow the commission to grant “common sense” waivers even where risks of harm are very low and costs of regulation are very high (pp. 7 et seq of the document, which fall on pp. 9 et seq of the PDF). In other words, the minibike dealers are out of luck unless they can convince (or persuade Congress to take the issue away from) the implacable Henry Waxman, who in turn tends to take his cue on these matters from Public Citizen and that group’s allies.

The powersports dealers aren’t the only ones stranded. At The Smart Mama, lawyer/lead testing consultant Jennifer Taggart ponders what might amount to “the end of bling” in kids’ wear. Genuine crystals by definition include lead, as do many rhinestones, although cheaper plastic imitations will more often be free of it. Trade groups have petitioned for an exemption, but given the law’s stringency (calling for the submission of peer-reviewed data, for example) it is far from clear that the commission can grant their requests. It will be easy in some quarters to dismiss the whole matter with a wave: who cares about mere embellishments, anyway?
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It’s not so easy to be dismissive if you’re, say, a teacher of Irish step dancing, with a stock of performance dresses in youth sizes (quite possibly with crystals, rhinestones or sequins, since nothing picks up stage lights the way they do). That stock of costumes, which might even be your most costly asset, by law at least may now occupy the same frozen contraband category as those tarped-over new youth minibikes at the sports dealer’s. As message-boarder “GailV” put it, “The dresses are worn for about 15 minutes at a time, the possibly lead-containing parts never touch the child, but it’s still illegal.” For more on the dismay CPSIA has struck into the Irish dance apparel community, see Irish Dance Moms, Fashion Incubator Forums, and Voy Forums comments here, here, and here (“Heidi”: “Most of us would like to be successful and running legitimate (law abiding) businesses. I want to grow my business, not hide in the shadows looking for ways to circumvent the law. Besides, the jealous world of Irish dance is full of potential whistle blowers.”)

More: In comments, Jennifer Taggart reports more distress in the bling sector.

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CPSIA and print-on-demand

by Walter Olson on February 23, 2009

sisforstrawberry
Print-on-demand technology has many promising applications for children’s products: it can keep low-sales-volume children’s books from falling out of print, for example, and it can make available T-shirts, posters or school supplies customized with the name of a particular child or family or that of a particular teacher’s class. Unfortunately, in the absence of a green light for component testing, each tiny “run” of goods may need to be lab-tested separately at what will often be prohibitive expense. The CPSC’s enforcement stay as to new-item testing bought a year’s time for most product makers, and its narrow and hastily granted exemption for newly printed books (which, alas, did not extend to countless other printed products) may have saved that particular product category. zisforzinnia For many other users and potential users of the technology, however, the problem has merely been kicked forward to next year in the absence of any willingness by Congress to clarify or change the law. Some discussions: Will Benton; Adam Dewitz, Print CEO (via Book Journeys), WSJ forums (dilemma faced by Tennessee printer). More on book exemption: AAP request, PDF; Etsy thread.

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Thrift stores, the day after

by Walter Olson on February 11, 2009

The Houston thrift shop in the video above is by no means alone. Elsewhere in the country, many resale stores are either closing their children’s sections entirely or drastically curtailing the line of goods they carry. Among them is Goodwill of Kansas (press release):

Painted toys and clothing with metal clasps or fasteners — including blue jeans, coats and hooded jackets for children 12 and younger — were pulled from store shelves Monday night, said Gayle Goetz, vice president of development for Goodwill Industries Easter Seals of Kansas.

The move affects 14 Goodwill stores in Kansas, including three in Wichita and one in Maize.

“We kept hoping we’d get some guidance, so we waited,” Goetz said. “We had our legal committee look at it last night and determined that there’s just too much liability.”

Half the supply of children’s clothing is gone at Omaha-area Goodwill for similar reasons (KPTM video).

At the same time, many other thrift stores nationwide are for the moment proceeding with business as usual, leaving kids jeans’, plastic playthings, pre-1985 books and other suspect items on the shelves, whether because they are breezier about taking on risks of liability, because they are unfamiliar with the law, or because they figure its terms are too irrational to actually be enforced. And even when they are withdrawing items from sale, some, like Goodwill of Kansas, are placing them into storage in the expectation that Congress will see reason (insert joke of choice here) and act to change the law soon.

Others, especially stores that specialize in kids’ resale, are thinking of closing their doors because of CPSIA or have already done so. “I have everything to lose,” said owner Kasey Brown in Ionia, Mich., who closed her Hey Baby Boutique a few days ago. (See also Maine and Arkansas items from our recent 50-state roundup).

One presumably unintended consequence will be to deprive nonprofit community and religious groups of millions of dollars in revenue with which they had pursued worthy causes. In the Charlotte area alone, kids’ resale at Goodwill is a $2 million business that supports job-training programs, the local director says. In an Indiana newspaper, a Salvation Army source is quoted as saying that the CPSIA blow could wipe out more than 16,000 places in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs supported by the stores.

In Bend, Oregon, according to ABC affiliate KOHD, consignment store Stone Soup decided to take the unusual step of screening its stock for lead using the X-ray fluorescence method. It cost $1,500 a week to rent the equipment, 30 percent of tested items failed (lots of zippers, rhinestones and skateboards out there with lead content), and the store found itself having to fill out scads of paperwork since each failure had to be reported to Washington under the law’s defect-notification provision.

In his stump speech five years ago, presidential candidate John Edwards (as Alex Tabarrok noted at the time) was

fond of empathizing with the plight of a 10-year old girl “somewhere in America,” who goes to bed “praying that tomorrow will not be as cold as today, because she doesn’t have the coat to keep her warm.”

As John Tierney of the New York Times countered, however, whatever real economic problems America had in 2004, children going without serviceable winter clothes because their parents lacked money was not high on the list: “The second-hand children’s coats that remain in America typically sell for about $5 in thrift shops.”

Way to solve that problem, Congress.

More: Thrift-store shutdowns in Florida and Kansas, “truckloads” removed from Goodwill stores in Louisiana, shelf-clearings and disruptions in Virginia, upstate New York and Waco, Texas. Tucson resaler Casa de los Ninos reports taking a $70,000 hit from inventory suddenly rendered worthless. That can’t be easy to incorporate into the economics of running such a place, but maybe the owner can just go without taking a salary for a year or two. I’m sure some CPSIA proponents will say it’s his own fault for not informing himself better about the law in advance.

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RaggedyAnnAndyFalling
Major provisions of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act take effect today, and last night the responsible federal agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, released a 13-page set of guidelines (PDF, updated link) for manufacturers and resellers, who thus enjoyed a generous few hours in which to review its myriad of bewildering details before opening for business on Tuesday and risking fines and prison terms under the law.

In general, the rules appear to hold little that is surprising or new, and thus serve to confirm that the law will prove a disaster unless quickly revisited and reformed by the U.S. Congress. To take just one example, that of resale, thrift and consignment stores, the CPSC guidance advises that such stores discard, or refuse to accept donations of, a very wide range of children’s items unless they are willing to test the items for lead or call their original manufacturer — neither of which steps is consistent with the economics of an ordinary small thrift store. Included in the suspect list are most children’s clothing (because most of it has snaps, buttons, zippers, grommets or other closures with unknown/unproved metal or plastic content), most books that were printed before 1985 or that (even if more recent) include metal or plastic elements such as staples* or spiral binders; most playthings (dolls, balls, trains, toy cars, etc.), most shoes and hair ornaments, most sporting goods, outdoor play items and wagons, board games when including any plastic spinners, tokens or other items, all bicycles and tricycles in kids’ sizes, most decorations for kids’ rooms, nearly everything with metal or synthetic applique, most school, art and science supplies, and on and on. A much diminished assortment of t-shirts, pullover sweaters, slip-on canvas shoes, unpainted/untreated wood blocks, post-1985 glued-spine books and a few like items might remain on the shelves, but for the most part, it now seems clear, the U.S. Congress in its wisdom has decided to banish the business of kids’ resale to the realm of outlawry, even when carried on by non-profits with unpaid volunteers.

I’ll have more later in the day. In the mean time, let me mention that Forbes.com has now published, in altered form, my 50-state survey of business distress, legal irrationality, and protest arising from CPSIA, which had earlier appeared here (on Sunday) as a blog post. Go check it out now!

*Although the 13-page guidance booklet itself is silent on the subject of staples, note the footnote to section 5 in the separate guidance on lead limits: “The term ‘ordinary book’ in this context means one that is published on cardboard or paper printed by conventional methods and intended to be read. It excludes children’s books that have plastic, metal or electronic parts.”

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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?

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Fifty glimpses of the law and its impact, plus one at the end for D.C:

Hawaii: Kailua doll shop closes despite CPSC enforcement stay (w/video); Honolulu Honey Baby shakes leis and hula skirts in dismay;
Alaska: “Why you should care about CPSIA, and what you can do about it”.
Washington: Don’t miss this helmet anecdote from Whitman County;
Oregon: Milagros Boutique of Portland: “One of our local vendors has decided to throw in the towel rather than wait and see if the CPSIA is amended.”
California: Thanks to stay, Whimsical Walney will close down only temporarily, not permanently;
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Utah: “We will have to lock our doors and file for bankruptcy,” said Shauna Sloan, founder of Utah-based children’s resale chain Kid to Kid. Glory Quilts: “My longest blog post ever — and the most angry“;

Colorado: Emily Werner: “Today, I have diaper making to do. But I also am ready to stuff envelopes“;
Idaho: Squares of Flair, from Eagle, is on the Endangered Whimsy list. And if you’re thinking of making something bulky for children, like a furniture line, have you considered that none of the nation’s lead testing labs are anywhere near Idaho?
Nevada: Let’s hope Sen. Harry Reid is listening to constituent Molly Orr;

Wyoming: For Kooky Dolls it’s a distinctly non-kooky issue;
Montana: Mark Riffey’s Business is Personal (Rescue Marketing) has helped focus blog attention;
Arizona: “No way” Other Mothers resale stores “can be completely compliant”;
New Mexico: Fashion Incubator and National Bankruptcy Day;

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Oklahoma: Farewell jingle dresses, powwow dance clothes, buckskin leggings, concho belts and other Native American celebratory kids’ gear;
Texas: Distress sale at My Pink Zebra Boutique in Katy;
Kansas: Owner of Baxter Springs company that makes organic nursing pillows doesn’t think threat of being “hauled off to prison” is very constructive;
Nebraska: Omaha-connected Baby Leather Moks is on Endangered Whimsy list;
North Dakota: Sunrise Hill Decor, making blocks for play or display, is member of the Handmade Toy Alliance;
South Dakota: Question after our own heart: what would Laura Ingalls Wilder have thought of this law?

Iowa: I may know there are no phthalates or lead in that whimsical chenille baby bib, and you may know it, but have you documented it to the satisfaction of the wary retailer’s lawyers?
Minnesota: Things seem to be going great, with your product line featured on the Martha Stewart show. And then this happens (auto-plays video);
Missouri: Fleece scarves, going too cheap;
Illinois: List-keeping in Naperville. Oprah, please help!
Wisconsin: Owner of Jacobsen Books in Clinton is also worried about small-run adaptive devices used by special needs children;
Indiana: Rebecca Holloway gives ‘em a deserved slamming; doll outfits and hair bows;

Ohio: Nicer-than-mass-produced diaper covers; Toledo Physical Education Supply takes a hit;
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Michigan: Brandi Pahl wonders: What are they thinking?; NARTS efforts couldn’t save Ionia resale store;
Arkansas: Closing of A Kidd’s Dream consignment shop in Conway doesn’t seem to have done much to change Sen. Mark Pryor’s mind;
Louisiana: The stay: “Hope but no solution“, kids’ Mardi Gras masks;
Mississippi: Sen. Roger Wicker is co-sponsoring DeMint reform bill;
Alabama: About that stay: “Read the fine print“; at least the pink whale got adopted;
Florida: “Many stores have fallen for the false report from the media that consignment stores are exempt.”
Georgia: Thank you, 11 Alive News, for listening to consignment sellers;

Tennessee: eBay seamstresses and Spanish baby gift sellers watching with concern;
South Carolina: Rock and mineral kits: do not eat contents unless you are at least 12 years of age;
North Carolina: Quilt Baby appeals to reason;
Kentucky: Menace of soft texture block set probably overrated;

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Maine: Any reform will come too late for Farmington’s Blessed Baby Boutique, shut down last weekend;
New Hampshire: As Commerce Secretary, d’you think Sen. Gregg could help?
Massachusetts: Rob Wilson of Ashland, importer of earth-friendly toys, has done much to spread the word, and impact on libraries noted in Newburyport;
Vermont: “Somewhere in the neighborhood of 95 percent of the merchants on our site would have to shut down,” says Michael Secore of Craftsbury Kids, with co-owner Cecilia Leibovitz a major spreader of word about the law, ditto Barre’s Polkadot Patch;
Rhode Island: Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed “don’t seem terribly concerned“.
Connecticut: Stamford maker faces $400 testing bill for each $360 run of bibs and napkins, while paperback exchange owner in Bethel terms application of law “insane“;

New York: Issue has captured attention of book publishers, if not of certain newspaper publishers;
New Jersey: You made play food for kids out of felt? No wonder Rep. Waxman is so worried they’ll eat it!
Delaware: Wilmington store Yo-Yo Joe’s is a member of the Handmade Toy Alliance;
Pennsylvania: Going out on a limb, Somerset librarian contends most kids are old enough to know not to put the books in their mouths;
Maryland: The Baltimore Etsy Street Team is on the wing;
West Virginia: Project Linus, which does great charity work in the donation of quilts and blankets, puts on a brave face but its friends are worried;

Virginia: Back away from that ribbon hair bow slowly, now, and we’ll just wait for the hazmat team to arrive;

*District of Columbia: Almost forgot Washington, D.C.! Well, in Washington, D.C., it’s easy to get them to pay attention to problems like these. For example, less than a month ago, the offices of Reps. Henry Waxman and Bobby Rush were instructing colleagues that if they get calls from constituents “who believe they may be adversely impacted by the new law,” it was because the constituents had fallen victim to “confusion” and “inaccurate reporting”. The most important advocacy group behind the law, the implacable Public Citizen, has launched a new campaign to defend it from critics; it was PC’s David Arkush who in December notoriously assailed (scroll to #1) “hysteria” about the law on the part of crafters and small businesses, broadly hinting that they were serving as dupes and stooges of Big Toy interests — perish the thought that they might have figured the issue out on their own! Trial-lawyer-defense groups like the misnamed Center for Justice and Democracy (along with their friends) chimed in with the thought that critics of the law needed to “grow up” (no, don’t bother commenting). CPSC Commissioner Thomas Moore, hewing to a similar line, blames the ongoing ruckus on “orchestrated campaigns to undermine the Act” that “are sowing the seeds of confusion that are upsetting so many small businesses.” Lobbyists and trade associations for mass-production importers and merchandisers are eager to prove their cooperation with the powers that be: “We were early proponents of mandatory laws to require toy testing,” said a Toy Industry Association spokesman the other day.

Washington, D.C. always does so well at listening to the rest of the country.

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To cap a week of bewilderingly rapid developments, the Consumer Product Safety Commission yesterday announced new guidelines somewhat widening the scope of products that it will consider presumptively lawful to sell (unless a merchant is actually on notice that they contain hazards) when the law’s major provisions take effect three days from now, on Tuesday, Feb. 10. From a quick once-over — and all this is subject to correction by lawyers expert in the matter — the new guidelines appear most useful for the children’s publishing business and for makers of children’s garments and electronics, although fraught with difficult problems even for them; they do little to help many other businesses and small manufacturers affected by the law, and are most ominous as regards two major constituencies affected by the act, resale stores and public libraries.

First, a bit of background. In a February 4 post, “The Blame Game“, Rick Woldenberg has laid out the “noose-like” tightness with which the drafters of the CPSIA sought to prevent the CPSC from granting exemptions from the standards; they also provided that liability under the law would not be suspended just because a request for exemption was under consideration. In short, the CPSIA is purposely drafted to place many advantages in the hands of consumer groups or other litigants who might wish to challenge an exemption in court. Since the CPSC cannot be sure of having the last word — its attempt to carve out an exemption for pre-Feb. 10 phthalate inventories was just struck down — it would be incautious for producers or retailers to rely overmuch on its policy pronouncements, especially since, while it obviously has some discretion over its own enforcement efforts, it cannot prevent others (like state attorneys general) from bringing their own actions. One of those state AGs, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, just issued a press release crowing over the consumer groups’ phthalate victory and warning retailers, thrift stores presumably included, that “My office will take whatever steps are necessary [emphasis added] to ensure this phthalate ban is enforced.” (Note that while the phthalate ban was often argued for on the basis of the “precautionary principle” — even if no actual harm to humans has been proved, shouldn’t we alter the formulas for making the items to be safe rather than sorry? — Blumenthal & co. now seek to redefine millions of existing playthings in American homes as “toxic toys”.) It should be noted that private activist and lawyer groups often shop potential cases to state AGs’ offices, and in turn are made monetary beneficiaries of resulting fines and settlements (more on California’s CEH here).

In any event, the CPSC now edges into daring and legally uncharted territory by declaring that it will presumptively excuse not just untreated beige cotton, wool and other materials, but also dyed fabrics, as well as certain innocuous varieties of trim. This is of help to garment makers, who will still of course face possible legal exposure on their plastic buttons, metal snaps, and other nonfabric components. Electronics makers will benefit because the commission will adopt a more lenient view of when components are inaccessible, that is, not reachable by a child even after an effort to smash and break the object. Certain metals and alloys known not to contain lead will also be listed as presumptively safe. Finally, “ordinary” children’s books (it is not clear whether books with staples qualify) will be presumptively lawful if published since 1985.

Published since when?

That’s right, since 1985. It seems before that year some books were printed with lead-containing inks. None of the discussion I’ve seen of the issue seems to report that any American child has ever been injured by eating the ink in books. But the implication is pretty clear for books published before 1985: unless you’d care to put them through testing, title by title and edition by edition, it’s now legally safer to throw ‘em out. One might propose vast bonfires in public squares, if not for the fear of violating air quality regulations.

It is not unusual for small independent booksellers to have in inventory still-unsold books of pre-1985 vintage. Perhaps these can be saved from landfills through the use of stickers reading, “Sold as a collectible only — under no account to be used by persons under 12″, as sellers of, say, vintage plastic dolls may do. But that doesn’t solve the problem for libraries. Their holdings include millions of pre-1985 children’s books, and if they stock them in children’s sections and allow them to be checked out at children’s request, they can’t very well play the “adult collectible” card. Beyond that, book sales are a major source of financial support for libraries, and inevitably include many of those ultra-terrifying, handle-with-lab-gloves pre-1985 children’s books.

Finally, thrift and resale stores remain in an unenviable position. Relatively few of the children’s goods they sell are composed entirely of materials on the hastily-assembled safe list. Most of the garments have snaps, zippers or plastic buttons; most of the sports items, board games and action toys have metal, vinyl or plastic components that might possibly (even if they probably do not) contain some admixture of lead or phthalates; who knows whether the jigsaw puzzles or spiral-bound art pads were printed before 1985, or, for that matter, would count as a “book”? Don’t even ask about bikes, trikes, strollers, car seats, backpacks, or things with rhinestones. And now you’ve got Richard Blumenthal and his allies vowing to “take whatever steps are necessary” — armed with those $100,000 penalties and those jail terms — against anyone who sells or resells items that a short time ago were a normal and, so far as anyone has been able to prove, harmless part of childhood.

Further discussion from Common Room (with particular attention to pre-1985 books: “I think the CPSC just turned my library into contraband. Or something.”) and Ian at Musings of a Catholic Bookstore. Rumor has it that CPSC will issue further guidance on thrift stores and resellers on or before Tuesday, but as Common Room cautions, “There’s a Difference Between a Policy and a Law“.

P.S. Note, incidentally, that the phthalate ban applies to a different (and generally narrower) range of products than does the lead ban: in particular, playthings and child care items. Peas and Bananas has reprinted the details (& welcome Publisher’s Weekly readers).

Public domain image: Grandma’s Graphics, Mabel Betsy Hill.

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Five days until the law’s effective date, and far more to round up than space allows:

  • Hundreds rally in front of Macy’s in New York’s garment district to protest the law [AP/AM New York; pic, and estimate of crowd at 1,000, at Publisher's Weekly] Plans for Feb. 10 day of protest [Fasanella/Fashion Incubator]
  • Several Senators are reported to have joined as sponsors of Sen. DeMint’s reform bill, which his staff says he wants to offer as an amendment to the stimulus bill (more). More welcome news: Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) calls for hearings on CPSIA [his office].
  • “Using a bazooka to kill a (lead-free) gnat”: the inimitable Prof. Richard Epstein on the law’s high costs and low benefits [Forbes.com]. “Huge job losses” could result unless Congress goes back to drawing board
    [Quin Hillyer, Washington Examiner, and more at American Spectator] More from Iain Murray at National Review “Corner” [here and here] and much coverage from Carter Wood at NAM “ShopFloor” as well.

  • At Crooked Timber, generally a pro-regulation site, John Holbo looks kindly on CPSIA reform — but a guy from PIRG pops right up to defend the measure. Scroll to comments #25 and #28 for good comments by familiar names, and then to Holbo’s own #30 (“I’m increasingly convinced that this is an unusually horrible law.”)
  • Reps. Rush and Waxman, Sens. Rockefeller and Pryor blame the whole mess not on their own offices’ drafting, but on CPSC Commissioner Nancy Nord, who resisted many of the law’s extreme provisions, and they demand her ouster [Little Ida]. CPSC Commissioner Thomas Moore likes the law just fine as is, which may help explain why Waxman et al. didn’t call for his head [same]. And yet another “we’re calling the shots here, but any failures are your fault” letter from Rush, Waxman et al to CPSC [Fashion Incubator]. NPR Marketplace’s coverage tends, with the law’s advocates, to promote the “inept agency” rather than the “insanely drafted law” narrative;
  • A news account in the WSJ attributes last Friday’s stay to “pressure from manufacturers”, with no mention of grass-roots movement at all. Lame. Meanwhile, CNNMoney quotes safetyists and trade associations, but not small producers, leaving readers clueless about costs. USA Today does a better job at presenting all sides.
  • The ultimate acronym? “Congress Passes Stupid Ill-conceived Act” [Three By Sea]
  • Rick Woldenberg and Heartkeeper Common Room have both been incisively taking on and refuting the assertions of the law’s diehard promoters, namely, the groups like PIRG, Public Citizen and Consumers’ Union; check out both sites and scroll through multiple posts. And Kathleen Fasanella’s Fashion Incubator promises to stay on top of activist and protest developments.

Public domain image, Ruth Mary Hallock: Grandma’s Graphics.

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Rick Woldenberg has been looking into it:

It’s certainly true that children have been checking books out of libraries for many, many years with only paper cuts to show for their reckless behavior. And thrift stores have sold children’s clothing and strollers for years without incident, but apparently no one knew the “dangers” that lurked within. Indeed, all of these items have been considered safe until February 10, when magically they will become unsafe unless proven otherwise.

According to reports from the field, zippers and snaps on kids’ garments are among the components most likely to flunk the new CPSIA standards. In all probability, millions of existing, already sold garments would flunk for similar reasons. Yet have CPSIA advocates pointed to even a single instance in which an American child has been poisoned by garment zippers or snaps? Could this be because kids do not as a rule detach and eat zippers and snaps? “Why aren’t we seeing many claims of injury from all the dangerous children’s products still legally available in the market?” Woldenberg asks. “Shouldn’t we be seeing outrageous injury statistics right now, currently”?

To put it differently, advocates seem to have taken a few genuine instances of injury from distinctive, atypical products (lead jewelry, powerful ball magnets) and used them to manufacture an imaginary crisis in the safety of children’s products generally. But there was never any general crisis of children’s product safety.

Following up, as part of a more general critique of CPSIA advocates’ misrepresentations — which should be read in its entirety, as it makes many other valuable points — Woldenberg analyzes the purportedly alarming data on product recalls involving children (Excel spreadsheet). Separately, Wacky Hermit has been looking at the recall figures as well. She concludes:

Of the 63 recalls that would have been prevented by CPSIA, only 1 resulted in an injury (a child ingested lead paint from a crib and had elevated blood levels of lead). This means that had CPSIA been in place for 2008, one child would have been helped.*

If we’re going to extrapolate one or a handful of injuries into a supposed national crisis, we might as well deduce a “children’s bathing crisis” from a bathtub drowning, a “children’s kitchen crisis” from a stovetop scalding or a “children’s transportation crisis” from a highway smashup. Common Room has a wrap-up which also should be read in full:

the majority of recalls (by an astronomical number) are not because a item has actually harmed anybody, but because the CPSC or the company determine that perhaps a particular item might possibly harm a child- and, while it flies against our intuitive, emotional reaction to the news that an item has lead, not all lead products are the same. The lead in a kid’s mini-bike tire valve is not as dangerous as the lead in paint on a toddler’s block. … The CPSIA treats real, imagined, and nonexistent threats exactly the same, and that is not sound policy.

*More: Jennifer Taggart writes to say that looking at past recalls does not make it possible to assess the law’s full effect since most items covered by CPSIA had not been subject to federal regulation (except under general catchall provisions). So the generalization quoted above should probably have included some limiting language to that effect.

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CPSIA Blog Day #6: Wrap-up

by Walter Olson on January 28, 2009

Links and angles that didn’t fit anywhere else:

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The Upscale Baby Blog (“Reviews of Stylish Baby Gear and Inexpensive Alternatives by Real Moms”) has been running a terrific series by Susan Maphis on the law, with many posts examining the law’s real-world impact on small makers of such products as cold-weather baby capes, eco-friendly animal dolls, personalized ceramic wall plaques, made-to-order coordinated mother-daughter outfits, custom quilts, organic-fiber baby sweaters, and toy barns from reclaimed wood. It makes for sad (some of the makers have already resigned themselves to going out of business) but important reading.