The government has again delayed independent safety tests required for many toys, youth all-terrain vehicles and other children's products as part of a 2008 anti-lead law -- a move meant to help small businesses burdened by the law.
Tuesday's decision by the Consumer Product Safety Commission means businesses that sell products for children 12 and under will have another ten months -- until Dec. 31 -- before they must undertake sometimes expensive third-party testing to make sure their products have safe levels of lead. The testing was supposed to begin next week.
What it means for consumers and the safety of what they see on store shelves isn't clear, says Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel at the Consumer Federation of America.
"Safety isn't guaranteed," said Weintraub. "Manufacturers need to meet the standard, but they don't need to prove it. The law needs to be fully implemented as written to give consumers assurances that the products are tested to meet the safest standards."
Currently, most products for children have to meet strict limits for lead and manufacturers need to know their merchandise complies, presumably through testing. But the testing process can vary from company to company.
Tuesday's delay by the commission gives manufacturers more time before they have to undergo the third-party testing at agency-approved laboratories, which would likely mean a more uniform testing process.
For businesses, especially smaller ones, the delay -- called a stay of enforcement -- should help blunt the impact and expense involved with the third-party testing.
"Any employer that was anticipating closing doors or reducing workforce shortly after the stay expired, and that is a very realistic issue for many businesses, may now have ten more months of work available for employees -- which seems like something to be excited about," said Michael Warring, president of American Educational Products in Fort Collins, Colo.
Warring's company, which sells classroom teaching aids like flash cards, animal models, globes and relief maps, employs about 60 people, down from 85 before the 2008 law. The layoffs, he says, were the combination of a bad economy and fallout from the new testing requirements that resulted in products being dropped because they didn't generate enough revenue to support costly testing.
Overall, it's the sixth time the CPSC has approved a delay in enforcing part of the law. The vote for the stay was 4-1, with commissioner Bob Adler, a Democrat, the lone vote against. Originally, CPSC staff had recommended a mid-September deadline for testing to commence, but Republican Commissioners Nancy Nord and Anne Northup pressed for more time.
The move by the agency comes after complaints from industry that more than two years after the law passed, CPSC is still mired in the process of writing rules that would determine how often products would have to be tested; who can initiate the tests (the maker or vendor of certain parts); and which laboratories will get the government seal for third-party tests.
The law, known as CPSIA, cleared Congress in 2008 after a holiday season marred by scores of lead-tainted toy recalls. It sets strict standards for lead and chemicals called phthalates when used in toys and products for children. Lead can cause irreversible brain damage, and some studies have linked phthalates to reproductive problems. Third-party testing for phthalates also has not kicked in yet.
Critics -- big and small businesses -- say the law overreached and needs to be reworked, and those efforts seem to be gaining traction now with a new Republican majority in the House.