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Children's product sellers get 1-year reprieve on lead testing

The Consumer Product Safety Commission votes to hold off on requirements that would have forced many firms to spend tens of thousands of dollars to check toys, clothing and other goods.

January 31, 2009|Alana Semuels

Federal regulators on Friday postponed some testing requirements that would have forced many companies to pay ten of thousands of dollars to check children's products for lead content, giving manufacturers and retailers a one-year reprieve.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission deferred the deadline, originally Feb. 10, by which manufacturers and importers of children's goods needed to test every item to ensure it didn't contain more than 600 parts per million of lead. They also have an extra year to test for phthalates, chemicals often used in plastic.

"The whole goal is to give these companies a little breathing space," said commission spokesman Joseph Martyak. "People across the nation have been telling us it's a well-intentioned effort, but on an unrealistic timetable."

Though they don't have to test as rigorously yet, manufacturers could still face civil and criminal penalties if they sell products that exceed the lead limits.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was passed by Congress last year after dozens of toys were recalled. It called for manufacturers to test products by Feb. 10 and for retailers to dispose of products that had not been tested by that date.

The two-member commission voted to stay those requirements for a year, after toy makers, publishers and clothing manufacturers voiced their concerns. The commission had already clarified a portion of the law that could have forced thrift stores to dump all of their children's clothing; the move in effect exempted them.

Also on Friday, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said he was planning to introduce legislation next week to exempt some small businesses from the law and require the commission to distribute a compliance guide, among other things.

The commission has been bombarded with thousands of calls, e-mails, letters and visits from people upset about the law, Martyak said. Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) and Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) and Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) also sent the commission a seven-page letter chastising it for the "great deal of confusion and misinformation" that had arisen over the law.

The industry is still waiting for guidance on whether toys and clothing made from natural materials will be exempted from the law entirely. And there are exceptions to the stay: Manufacturers still must test products for small parts that may break off, lead content in children's jewelry and lead paint. They also must ensure that cribs conform to standards set by the law.

"It looks like a positive step, but there's still a lot of legalese," said Dan Marshall, founder of the Handmade Toy Alliance, which was created to inform small toy companies about the law and advocate for them.

He worries that environmental groups will file a lawsuit to reverse the commission's decision.

They have expressed concern over lead content in toys and have proved that some children's products currently on shelves contain unsafe amounts of lead.

Still, the delay will buy time for thousands of companies that hadn't heard about the law until recently, said Mark Kaster, a partner at Minneapolis law firm Dorsey & Whitney.

"It's going to help a large contingent of companies that really are in total confusion about what the CPSIA is trying to accomplish," he said.

Larry Mestyanek, owner of Los Angeles company TAG Toys, thinks the stay will save him $50,000 in testing fees. He's been fielding calls from customers every day asking whether his toys have been tested and whether he can explain the law, so he appreciates the reprieve.

But it's too late to save money for Albert Lee, owner of boys clothing manufacturer Monster Republic in Los Angeles. He said he has been rushing to test his clothing since he heard about the law in mid-December. It cost him "a solid month of worry and stress," plus a few thousand dollars, he said.

"It's fantastic that we got a stay, but it's infuriating too," he said. "They tell us to hurry up and wait."

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alana.semuels@latimes.com

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