After a barrage of complaints, federal regulators shifted gears Thursday and said they would no longer require that used children's clothing, toys and other items sold at secondhand stores be tested for lead.
Thrift and consignment store operators had protested that they couldn't afford to pay for the testing, and that doing so would require them to stop selling some goods or even go out of business.
"I am praising God I am so happy," said Trish Taylor, owner of Reruns for Wee Ones, a resale store in Fairfield, Ohio. "I would have had to close down; my employees would be without jobs."
Officials with the Consumer Product Safety Commission initially said that thrift stores couldn't sell any clothes, toys or other merchandise for children younger than 12 that had not been tested for lead starting Feb. 10, as required by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act passed by Congress last year.
Outraged thrift store owners blitzed the commission with objections, and on Tuesday the two-member panel gave preliminary approval of several measures to exempt products made from natural materials, such as cotton and wood, from the rules.
But the commission said those exemptions would not be formally adopted before the testing requirement went into effect Feb. 10, fueling continued protests.
On Thursday the agency backed away even more, issuing a statement saying that "sellers of used children's products, such as thrift stores and consignment stores, are not required to certify that those products meet the new lead limits . . . or new toy standards."
Commission members Thomas Moore and Nancy Nord could not be reached for comment. But a statement issued by the commission suggested the retreat was driven by practical concerns.
"The agency intends to focus its enforcement efforts on products of greatest risk and largest exposure," the statement said.
Although testing is not required, agency spokeswoman Julie Vallese emphasized that secondhand shops cannot sell products that exceed the lead limits and should avoid products that may contain lead. That may mean, for example, that such shops need to be more vigilant about recall notices. It became illegal to sell recalled products on Aug. 14, 2008, the day the measure was signed into law.
Despite the commission's action, some merchants and manufacturers remain confused about the new law and their potential liability.
"If the intention is not to throw a small store owner in jail, why don't they just change the law to make it read that way?" said Cynthia Broockman, who owns two consignment stores in Virginia.
Commission officials say they cannot change the actual law -- that's up to Congress -- and have discretion only over how it is enforced.
Thursday's guidance didn't please everyone. Children's clothing manufacturers still have to comply with the law, which means that small businesses that make children's clothing must pay to get their clothing tested or close their doors. Toy makers also must still comply.
The American Apparel and Footwear Assn. is lobbying the commission to rule that components of clothing be tested before the products are made. That would save clothing makers valuable time and money, said Stephen Lamar, the organization's executive vice president. The association also hopes to extend the Feb. 10 deadline to give businesses some breathing room.
Most big merchants and manufacturers say they can handle the cost of compliance. But Stephanie Wood of Ojai, who owns a clothing line called "Can You Dig It? Organic Apparel," says she will be forced to close shop. Wood's line is made from organically grown cotton and dyed with eco-friendly fiber reactive dyes, but she'll still be required to pay $15,000 to test her line, a cost she can't afford in the current economy.
Publishers and libraries say that they, too, make products that are not dangerous to children but will have to be tested under the current interpretation of the law. Allan Adler, vice president for legal and government affairs at the Assn. of American Publishers, says that only one children's book has been recalled in the last 20 years because of its lead content -- and that book had a metallic spiral binding.
"When the Feb. 10 deadline comes, we're going to see books taken off shelves of classrooms, libraries and bookstores," Adler said.