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Retailers rush to comply with lead law

They are pulling children's products off the shelves as the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act goes into effect.

February 11, 2009|Alana Semuels

Retailers across the country are yanking shoes, toys, Valentine's gifts and other children's goods from shelves to comply with a strict lead law that took effect Tuesday.

The repercussions of the hotly debated Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which bans the sale of children's products containing dangerous amounts of lead and chemicals called phthalates, began rippling through the industry as manufacturers realized the law wasn't going away.

Over the last two months, toy and clothing manufacturers, publishing houses, thrift stores and others have rallied against the law, saying it would force them to throw away thousands of products that either hadn't been tested or were manufactured before the law was publicized.

They had hoped for a reprieve from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which enforces the law, or from Congress.

But the commission decided it didn't have the authority to delay the enforcement date, and Congress decided not to add to the economic stimulus package an amendment that would have changed the rule.

Environmentalists say the law took effect quickly for a reason: There are still dangerous toys on shelves.

The Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit in Oakland, purchased 18 "Princess" bracelets and necklaces from a Disney Store in Concord, Calif., on Tuesday and said that all exceeded the lead limits set by the new law. A day earlier, the group found Valentine's Day toys at Rite Aid and Longs Drug Stores that it said contained dangerous amounts of lead.

A Walt Disney Co. spokesman said that the products flagged by the environmental group had passed the required tests but that the company was investigating the allegations.

Principle Plastics, which has been in Los Angeles since 1948, is among the manufacturers hit hard by the law. President David Hoyt said a major retailer, whose name he would not disclose, told him it would stop selling 22,000 pairs of his company's shoes because a label on them contained lead.

The shoes had been tested in March, before the law passed, Hoyt said. It wasn't until December, when he received the shipment of shoes from his factories in China, that he learned that a patch on the back of one model contained lead. Even so, he said, the retailer sold them until this month, when it began pulling them from shelves in advance of the deadline.

He expects the ordeal to cost him $250,000 in lost sales and penalties from the retailer.

"We're toast," Hoyt said. "There's nothing that's going to help me."

Many retailers and manufacturers say that they still don't understand the rules, and that recent decisions by judges and the Consumer Product Safety Commission about phthalates, third-party testing and natural materials made the law even more perplexing. On Monday, the commission posted a guide on its website to answer some of the most frequently asked questions.

"We're working overtime and just trying so hard to be in compliance and understand these rules," said Mario Haug, vice president of Goodwill of Southern California.

About 1% of toys and clothing on Goodwill shelves had to be pulled to comply with the law, he said. Employees stepped up enforcement this week as the deadline loomed.

The law even applies to the automotive industry. Motorcycle and all-terrain vehicle dealers pulled from shelves dozens of models and accessories, aimed at kids, that are made of metal alloys containing lead. The Motorcycle Industry Council has filed a petition to ask that ATV and motorcycle components be excluded from the law, but it has not received a decision, general counsel Paul Vitrano said.

Many manufacturers and retailers have given up. Joseph Okapal, an Oklahoma toy maker who produced cars and trucks from oak, said that rather than test each of his $5 toys, he'd instead start making products for adults, such as bookshelves and pencils. He believes he'll be able to stay in business, but worries about the church bazaars that sold his toys or rented him booths to sell them.

"We just don't have the time to chase these laws," he said. "That means money out of all of these people's pockets."


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