Monday, December 22, 2008

Roused From My Slumber

I'm not sure how best to talk about this on my blog, so be patient with me. There's a reason I don't usually talk politics on here. Politics is polarizing and people tend to immediately classify any political discussion into "with my side" or "against my side". This, however, is a truly bipartisan issue. If there are "sides" to this, it's the people who pay attention vs. the people who don't pay attention.

First, for those for whom this is their introduction to the issue: In August, Congress passed a law called the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, or CPSIA. You may remember the well-publicized toy recalls of toys made in China that had high levels of lead. Well, this was the law Congress passed in response to them. Now, it was already against the law for children's toys to have lead levels that high, but manufacturers were only required to recall their toys if lead levels were found to be too high in them. When you do a recall, though, you don't get back every single item; thus there are still some toys out there from these recalled batches, getting sold on eBay and in thrift stores, passed on to neighbors, etc. Most people don't check the recall notices because there are just too many; a tiny percentage of a huge volume is still a huge volume. Congress found this unacceptable so they passed the CPSIA with near unanimity in both House and Senate. What the CPSIA does is requires third-party lead testing before a product can be put on the market for use for children 12 and under. Any toy that hasn't been tested will be assumed to have lead in it, declared a "banned hazardous substance," and will be a felony to sell.

This sounds like a really good idea, until you take about 10 seconds to think about how it will work outside of Utopia, where happy elves manufacture lead-free toys in tidy workshops lit with a soft amber glow.

So what could go wrong with requiring proactive lead testing?

First, the deadline for lead testing (Feb. 10, 2009) applies retroactively to all goods in inventory. That means anything manufacturers have already sold has to be tested for lead or else it becomes a felony to sell it come February. Manufacturers have petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission to apply this only to goods manufactured after Feb. 10. Their request was denied; the law was clear.

Second, the testing has to be done on the item itself and paid for by the manufacturer of the item. So you can't, say, use lead-free wood and lead-free paint to make a lead-free toy duck. Well, you can; but you can't sell it unless you get it tested... for lead. And if you use the same materials to make a toy dinosaur too, you have to test the dinosaur separately. And if you make a toy duck with stripes, you have to test that separately too. The CPSC is thinking about allowing separate testing of each component, and maybe they'll get around to deciding it before the requirements are to be met, seeing as how their comment submission deadline is less than two weeks before Feb. 10.

Third, the testing has to be done by an accredited third party lab. There are around 50 million children under 12 in the U.S. ... and 14 accredited labs. Plus, the testing costs A LOT. To test a simple pair of my handmade baby booties will cost me around $75. The required testing for a children's telescope, with all its parts, will cost upwards of $24,000.

Fourth, the law doesn't just apply to toys or imported items. It applies to EVERYTHING made for children 12 and under. It doesn't matter what it is, what it's made from, who makes it, or how hard it would be to get the lead out of it and into the child. Every item of clothing, every pacifier, every electronic device (although they only have to have the "accessible parts" lead-free), every dish, every shoe, every book, and every bead has to be certified lead-free. No more Swarovski crystal bracelets. No more beeswax-finished heirloom furniture. It doesn't matter if the children are likely to munch on it or not (e.g. paper clips in science experiment kits for children 8 and up). Even pianos and outdoor playground equipment are not exempt. And what's worse, even if you put a warning on it that says "Not For Children 12 and Under", the CPSC will still count it as a "children's product" if an average person might think children would be interested in it. So collectible plush and amigurumi dolls have to be tested for lead.

There's more, but you get the picture. Anything that's being handcrafted, made in small batches, or serves a niche market is going to find it not cost-effective to get the testing done. Thrift stores that resell children's goods will have to have a certificate of lead-free-ness from the items' manufacturers for products made years ago, or else face charges.* If they're honest, they'll either do the testing (and charge more to cover the costs) or go out of business. Existing toys will have to be taken off the shelves or sold at a steep discount to get them out of the stores by Feb. 10, when the law declares they are to be treated as a "banned hazardous substance". Imported toys from Europe, which already meet the EU's RoHS standard for lead content, will have to be re-tested for U.S. sale. Already lines of quality European toys are becoming unavailable.

Now, if you're a normal person who trusts their government, your immediate reaction is going to be "Wacky Hermit, you're overreacting. The government wouldn't do something that stupid. How could they write a law that would do all that? You must be misunderstanding it." Well, the fact is that the government DID it. Maybe they thought they were doing something different, because they didn't read the law before they voted for it. Maybe they'd sign the back of a yeti if they were told it was "for the children." Maybe they intended the law to only apply to large manufacturers, or to have some common sense written into it. But that wasn't the law they passed. THIS IS A FAIT ACCOMPLI. It's already law. It's been law for nearly half a year. And if you think I'm misunderstanding it, PLEASE click through to the links I've provided, especially the ones that link directly to the CPSC's own website.

Let's get one thing straight: this is NOT being opposed by mustachio-twirling tightwad manufacturers whose evil plans to dump vats of lead into the Children's Toy Factory have now been foiled. I have yet to hear of a manufacturer who expressed anything but a desire to keep children safe-- it does you no good to poison your customer base-- or was unwilling to go along with any testing regime whatsoever. They all agree with the goals; it's the means that are problematic.

On Feb. 10, 2009 (or before), the children's product industry will take an enormous hit. People will be put out of work. Products for children will become hard to find or will cost more. If you think saving GM is a good idea, maybe you could take a minute to help save an industry that's just as big... and isn't asking for a handout from the government.

What can you do? There's a whole list of suggestions here; I won't rehash them. But do SOMETHING. Write to your Congresspeople, if nothing else. But do it now. The uncertainty alone is already killing the industry. Many people are still holding out hope that Congress will realize their error and fix it before it's too late.

And now you may be asking, what have *I* done? Well, in addition to doing all of the above, I've gotten price quotes for testing, written to every blogger, local news station, and online magazine I can think of, and organized a mail-in protest. My protest is getting bigger and bigger and has even made the CPSIA Central page, where hopefully we'll pick up so many participants that the US Postal Service will have to back a truck up to Congressman Rush's office. I have never organized a protest before, even on issues I felt strongly about. That should tell you something about how important this is.

Folks, this is my livelihood we are talking about here. This is your children's clothing and playthings and furniture. This is YOUR pocketbook that will be affected. Please, do something!

* UPDATE: There's a report here suggesting thrift stores may be exempt, but given the wording of the law and the CPSC General Counsel opinions, I don't see how they would manage that. Even if it's legal for them to sell used toys, it would only take one person buying a leaded toy to sue a thrift store to put them all out of business, so I imagine many of them will no longer sell toys (at least) as a precautionary measure.

MORE UPDATE: How could I snub Kathleen after all the hard work she's done putting together the CPSIA War Room! That's The Place To Go for manufacturers and others who have a direct concern with the CPSIA.

UPDATE THE THIRD: Senator Leahy, at least, gets it!