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Hot lead, cold feet

Scott Jagow Feb 10, 2009

One of the most hot-button stories we’ve seen lately is government regulations on lead in children’s products. Today, new limits on lead and phthalates took effect, but there’s still a lot of confusion and apprehension about what this means for companies that make toys, clothes and anything that kids consume. Marketplace reporter Mitchell Hartman has been following this story, and frankly, it has been following him. He breaks it down really well and provides some good links.

Here’s what Mitchell shared with me:

Even though the new limits are now the law, businesses don’t have to test and certify their products for one more year. That makes it basically an “honor system,” according to Ami Gadhia of Consumer’s Union. Still, manufacturers and retailers face fines for violating the standards, and safety advocates say that’s a good thing. Also, CPSC won’t go after anything made with natural materials like wood, cotton, or wool; or a children’s book published after 1985; or dyed and undyed textiles; or stuff at thrift shops and second-hand stores.

As a reporter, I’ve never been so inundated with press releases, calls for actions, claims and counterclaims, as I have covering this story. I’ve been approached for interviews by people I didn’t even know were involved. The Etsy.com crafters said they were selling everything, shutting down. The toy stores said their shelves would be empty. The manufacturers said they would have to throw away millions of dollars in inventory. Business groups are still pushing for enforcement delays and exceptions for small businesses; Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) has introduced legislation to provide relief for businesses. The battle’s not over.

My guess is we won’t see empty clothes racks or dumpsters full of trashed Talking Elmos, though. According to the CPSC’s Scott Wolfson, the big players–Mattel, Hasbro, Toys R Us–got on board early and have been in compliance for months already. They can’t afford not to. Smaller players will adjust their business practices, reduce their product lines, take advantage of the CPSC’s delays and exemptions . . . and cope.

In the end, parents will finally be assured for the first time that what they buy can be touched, chewed, sucked, smashed, and otherwise played with by their children without risk of lead poisoning or phthalate contamination. True, some small businesses will be hurt–possibly permanently–by costs and regulations they can’t afford. But the trade-off is peace of mind. What’s the price of that?

Find out more about these new regulations at the Consumer Product Safety Commission website.

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