Product safety law riles area retailers

Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009

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Staff photo by REID SILVERMAN
Jenny Connelly, center, of Bushwood examines a children's T-shirt for her 4-year-old son, Brandon, as she shops at Hooks n' Hangers II thrift store in Charlotte Hall on Tuesday. Local business owners and resale shoppers are worried about implications of the Consumer Protection Safety Improvement Act, which goes into effect Feb. 10 and requires all children's products to meet new lead and phthalates standards.

Local businesspeople are outraged by new lead testing regulations they believe will jack up prices on children's products and potentially run thrift stores, designers, retailers and handcrafters into the ground.

The new requirements are part of the August passage of the federal Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which prohibits the sale of products that contain more than 600 parts per million of lead and 1,000 ppm of phthalates, harmful acids found in plastics. The law was passed following a widespread toy safety scare in late 2007 and early 2008.

The unprecedented legislation is not limited to manufacturers and importers and extends liability for any product made for children younger than 12 to retailers, designers, day care providers, resellers at thrift stores, online auctions and yard sales, and public libraries.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, charged with enforcing the law, announced Friday that it will postpone lead testing requirements for libraries, which were worried they would have to shut down their children's rooms and take children's books off the shelves. Manufacturers and importers will also not need to issue certificates based on testing of their products until additional decisions are made by the CPSC.

While retailers and resellers will not be responsible for testing products themselves, they are responsible for making sure the products they carry are in compliance. If not, products cannot be sold or even given away.

That translates into a whole lot of garbage and trips to the landfill, critics say.

The law becomes effective Feb. 10 and carries civil and criminal penalties and fines of up to thousands of dollars if caught.

"It's going to be devastating to the stores, not just for us as a business but to the community," said Donna Retzlaff, executive director of Spring Dell Center in La Plata, which runs multiple thrift stores in the region and estimates children's items to be 25 percent of total sales. "There are a large number of people who shop at the thrift store. They don't have to be needy, they're just smart shoppers. With this economy, we're seeing a lot of new customers. I'm really not sure what the consumers are going to do. Children's items are a big part of our business."

Stephanie Lundberg, an aide to U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) noted that Hoyer supported the bill, but so did most federal lawmakers. "Congressman Hoyer did support CPSIA, as did most of the House, 424–1," Lundberg wrote in an e-mail.

As the law currently stands, Retzlaff's staff would have to check thousands of children's toys and clothing to make sure they're in compliance with standards, which is nearly impossible. It will be easier to throw it all out.

"If I have a children's sweater with buttons on it, how can I guarantee that the buttons don't have lead content? We have not made our final decision. We're going to have to work very quickly to clear the stores out. The only exception is children's clothing. I'll be able to recycle them but that still doesn't help the people who need them," Retzlaff said. "Hopefully something will come out before the [Feb.] 10th. I thought we would have had better news before now. The law is really meant for the manufacturers. Our customers are outraged. They can't believe this is something we have to follow through with."

But Lundberg said a recent decision by the CPSC should clarify the issue. "[S]ellers of used children's products, such as thrift stores and consignment stores, are not required to certify that those products meet the new lead limit, phthalates standard or new toy standards," the CPSC said in the decision, according to Lundberg's e-mail.

Retzlaff is also worried about the impact new regulations will have on local departments of social services and faith-based organizations which receive thrift store vouchers for needy populations, and the revenue impact it will cause to her own agency, which is used to support programs for adults with developmental disabilities.

Testing and certification requirements have never applied to the secondary market, according to a statement on the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops Web site.

"The resale industry needs a realistic solution that will not trap them between a choice of going out of business or being in violation of the law," it reads.

Calls to the CPSC's media relations line were not returned.

Laurie Uherek, owner of two Educate and Celebrate toy and school supply stores in Waldorf and Prince Frederick, said the new regulations could cause 80 percent of retailers and U.S. manufacturers to go out of business if the CPSC decides, once the stay of enforcement is up, that certification and testing standards will be retroactive, according to information from some professional associations.

That's because the process from building a toy to placing it on the shelf takes as long as a year and a half.

"It's definitely going to affect us. That's almost impossible. Some of this stuff is on my shelf now. I think it's going to be better for our industry but we're not out of the woods yet. Some of my manufacturers have given me lists of things that won't make it through the inspection and I've taken those things down. I really do rely on my manufacturers to do their homework," Uherek said. "Is it the right thing to do? Yes. But the reality is that so many things have been sent overseas these days and some people just cut corners."

The CPSIA also makes the sale of recalled products illegal.

Cheryl Henderson, a Southern Marylander who "hobby" shops at local thrift stores for her three growing children, said current economic conditions can't sustain the effects of the law on many consumers, who rely on secondhand products to save cash. However, Henderson can see both sides of the coin as a mother.

"It makes me feel safer about the lead part. But it really puts a damper on the people around here. I think people will think twice about having yard sales. The middle class doesn't have the money [to pay more for items]. As long as the products coming from the manufacturer are tested or we stop importing things from China, where all the problems started in the first place, then it should be OK," she said.

Maryland public libraries have one year to decide how to bring millions of children's books into compliance.

Kathleen Reif, director of St. Mary's County libraries, said she believes libraries should be exempt altogether and that communication has been poor between those affected by the new law and the safety commission.

"I found out about it from my local book store owner in early January. Needless to say, the [American Library Association] is working to have libraries exempt," Reif said. "Libraries would have to be closed off from children, school and public, until every single item is tested. We don't have the revenue to do that. I'm hoping that common sense will reign and exempt libraries from this. Any books that are published will have to be tested for this lead content. The cost of books will go up to absorb that kind of expense. It's best intentions run amok here. It will also have tremendous implications on landfills."

Handmade garment makers should know whether the zippers, buttons and other fasteners they use contain lead. And handmade toy manufacturers need to know whether their products, if using plastic or soft flexible vinyl, contain phthalates.

The law even includes bicycle helmets and school supplies, Uherek said.

Leonardtown entrepreneur Molly Chen, creator and designer of Bibs N' Match, a type of onesie for babies, said she had to pull production of her product last month in India because she hadn't yet tested them.

"Even though I know my products are safe, I didn't know if they would be compliant. When I order, I want to be able to sell them for a year or so, so I cannot afford to have inventory that I cannot sell, donate or give away. I lost customers because of it. It will cost me a few hundred dollars if not more for every component [piece of the product], for each size or color," she said, noting she produces 1,000 to 2,000 pieces at a time. Higher costs for her will ultimately mean higher costs for the consumer.

"You do the math. It's just not feasible and it's not a good business decision and that prohibits me from coming up with new designs. Everything might double or triple the price," she said.