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Some answers (sort of) on the CPSIA

Posted by: John Tozzi on January 14, 2009

One of the biggest problems in the firestorm over the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act has been a lack of clarity from regulators. (Again, this is the new law intended to reduce lead in children’s products that small producers say will put them out of business with costly testing, even on materials they say are unlikely to contain lead.) I had a brief talk with Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, yesterday. (He said he had something like 500 messages from reporters, so I appreciate him taking time to speak with me.) Here are a few points worth highlighting.

  • The CPSC expects to publish four proposed rules on implementing the law and exemptions in a matter of “days.” The notices about these rules are on the commission’s site.
  • Once the proposed rules are published, there’s a 30 day comment period. Then the commission staff, based on comments, drafts the final rule.
  • This won’t be done (because of the 30 day comment period) before the Feb. 10 deadline for testing lead levels, so businesses still need to comply with the required testing by then.
  • Any exemptions need to be based on evidence that the substances don’t contain prohibited levels of lead.

It seems a lot of the uncertainty surrounding this won’t be cleared up until those final rules are published.

Also this morning I spoke to Dr. James Roberts, associate professor of pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina, and an expert on lead. One thing he said was that recent research shows children being affected by low levels of lead that were previously thought to be not harmful. “There is no threshold effect of lead. Lead has no physiological function in the body. Any amount can start the process of damage,” he says.

Some notes from the comments on this thread. Ruth Kubierschky writes, in part, that

We handcrafters KNOW our products are safe, many or most of us buy our materials from retail sources. As one Etsy seller pointed out, she can go to a fabric store and buy materials and make a dress for her daughter. Why does the law make it illegal for her to make the exact same dress and sell it? It’s ridiculous.

On the other hand, Hilary says this:

One thing few of us ever mentions is that most of us have long produced goods without thought to real compliance with safety laws already in place. At best, many shop owners simply toss a disclaimer into the air “not intended for children under the age of three”

Now, all of a sudden, we are acutely aware of our levels of compliance. I think the biggest chunk of good that may come from this is the level of safety education and collaboration now available to the average consumer and small business owner. Unfortunately, a lot of the information is garbled as we try to interpret it.

Taking this as a lesson, on the micro business level we need outreach programs, not enforcement. We already care- just show us what exactly we need to be caring about.

A possible solution from Jennifer Taggart:

What makes the most sense is to target those components that often have lead, and require testing or certification for those components when used in children’s products and can result in an exposure (such as ingestion) - paint and coatings, crystals, polyvinyl chloride plastic (often stabilized with lead), zipper pulls, plastic buttons, metal buttons/closures, accessible snaps, decorative coatings (transfers, etc.) used on clothing, brass buckles, etc.

But since it looks like most of this won’t be cleared up before Feb. 10, what are people doing, business-wise, to prepare?

Reader Comments

Warren Baker

January 14, 2009 1:09 PM

Thank you for your interest in this issue. In the BMX race bike industry which is affected. I know of one smaller manufacturer that is selling all his remaning inventory at cost or a loss and planning on closing shop on Feb. 9th. This really is nuts.

Wacky Hermit

January 14, 2009 1:09 PM

I heard Mr. Wolfson on a talk show. You should have heard the accusatory tone in his voice, like he was upset that he has to spend any of his time explaining it to us dumb stupid hick store owners and manufacturers in single syllable words, and couldn't we just f---ing get a dictionary and look it up. Like he thinks we're just irresponsible because we can't figure out how to make sense of his doubletalk. Maybe he'd rather be talking to fancypants reporters from Business Week (no offense, John, I'm sure your pants are fine).

I can't believe he doesn't grasp that we're upset because he's telling us that we have to comply with laws in ways that we can only divine with a crystal ball. How do we do the testing if they haven't accredited labs for them yet because they're still going through the procedure for codifying the accreditation requirements? How do we know if XRF testing or component testing are allowed, when nothing has come out and heck the comment period on it isn't even closed? Those lovely proposed rules that he references aren't new; we already had heard about them. What we need are notices of new rules regarding component testing, XRF testing, and other solid stuff that we can make a plan around. Otherwise we have to do expensive testing taking a chance that maybe it'll be the wrong testing and we'll have wasted our money. That's why so many are just going out of business-- they have to comply with a law when they don't even know what it is and the people whose job it is to know are telling them to shove off and take more responsibility.

So far they're only exempting undyed, untreated cotton, wool, and precious metals. Well when I find it a viable business model to craft kids' silverplated fluffballs, maybe his rules will make my path clear. Until then Mr. Wolfson can kiss my fat white Portuguese buttocks.

John Tozzi (BusinessWeek reporter)

January 14, 2009 1:42 PM

Wacky Hermit, it's worth noting that CPSC didn't write the law. Wolfson was very clear that they're charged with implementing the statute Congress passed (nearly unanimously). I can't speak to his tone in another interview, but he did not sound accusatory to me.


January 14, 2009 2:41 PM

I don't think Wolfson said anything accusatory but I don't think he said anything new. They just continue to restate the law. What I think is disturbing is the CPSC (including Wolfson in the radio program) and other special interest organizations continue to state that there is misinformation being circulated online. What exactly is the misinformation? They accused many of exaggerating test quotes. I have offered to share my test quotes with them but no one has taken me up on the offer.

The CPSC site is terribly difficult to analyze and follow what applies to each individual organizations situation when they say things like "certain children's products". And then you wonder...are my things the certain children's products? This has caused many of us to work together to try to decipher the CPSC documents.

Interesting about the doctor's perspective regarding lead. I just did a dress fitting the other day with a 10 month old. She had everything but a child's toy in her mouth. The mom's necklace, her sweater buttons, the table, a bag, etc...

Donna Gorenflo

January 14, 2009 3:02 PM

I can only imagine the widespread panic when the unknowing American citizen walks into their favorite store to buy their baby diapers, bottles, cups, toys, etc.. and doesn't seem them on the shelves come Feb. 10th. The government has been warning us that it was going to get worse right? I guess this is what they were talking about huh? This will affect many more business owners as well as create widespread panic with consumers. If you shop today at your favorite department store and find unbelieveable'll know why. As for me, I'm a very small business owner and you bet I'm knocking my stock into sale status as fast as I can. As a consumer, I'm going to run out and buy my daughter that winter jacket she needs because her old one is getting to small and I'm going to warn my friends and family to hurry up and stock up on diapers and any other items they think they'll need for their children for the next few months!


January 14, 2009 4:37 PM

Our business doesn't sell children's products (we offer gifts for new parents), but I've been covering CPSIA progress since 2008 because I know how devastating it will be to our retail partners that carry children's products. One thing is for sure, this isn't a "small business" issue. Large manufacturers may have more money on hand to cover the $400-$2,000 per/product testing costs, but there won't be anyone left to sell products without some form immediate intervention.

I too wondered what businesses are doing to prepare, and here's what I found after speaking with manufacturers and retailers (large & small):

> Retailers have been (a) selling existing stock asap, (b) asking manufacturers if they'll be certified before Feb 10th. Of course, manufacturers can't make sense of the half-baked they can't guarantee they'll be certified. In turn, retailers haven't been restocking in January.

> Manufacturers have been unsuccessfully trying to find out the obvious details including (a) what a certificate looks like, (b) how much they will cost per product, (c) how do they get one by Feb 10th, and (d) how should these certificates be presented (packed with every product or 1 in every shipment) to prove compliance? Of course, this assumes that manufacturers can afford to test all their SKUs to begin with...but you see the vicious cycle everyone is now in.

Manufacturers don't have anywhere to turn for answers, so they are desperately trying to unload inventory. Retailers don't want to get stuck with "uncertified" goods, so they aren't restocking.

I think it's fair to say that the CPSC doesn't have the time or resources necessary to create a universal certification system that works by Feb 10th. It would make more sense to establish a functional certification system that can first be successfully applied to small niche product like children's jewelry. Once we have a system that actually works, extend it to other product-types on a realistic schedule so the business community can plan for it.

The CPSIA may have had good intentions, but it instantly blacklisted a massive number of products from many important industries (publishing, toys, furniture, clothing) in one swoop. If you think the loss of the US auto industry was bad for the economy, just wait and see what happens on Feb. 10th when everything created for kids 0-12 years old is labeled "illegal".

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What's it like to run your own company today? Entrepreneurs face multiple hurdles new and old, from raising capital and managing employees to keeping up with technology and competing in a global marketplace. In this blog, the Small Business channel's John Tozzi and Nick Leiber discuss the news, trends, and ideas that matter to small business owners. Follow them on Twitter @newentrepreneur.

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