By Julie Marsh
Imperfect or not, if you're a parent of young children and you spent even a few moments online in the last eighteen months, it's inevitable that you heard about the toy recalls.
From lead-based paint on toys made in China to beads coated with a chemical that metabolizes into the form of a date-rape drug when ingested, there was good reason to subscribe to the CPSC's recall alert and to be extra vigilant when choosing toys for your kids. These recalls prompted the creation of shopping guides for safer toys and raised the general awareness of parents concerning what our children play with.
Perhaps best of all, especially in light of our increasing consumerism, many parents gained a greater appreciation for quality over quantity.
Unfortunately, in typical legislative fashion, Congress has devised a "solution" to the oversights that led to these recalls -- a solution that will create many more problems. Problems that Congress never even anticipated, naturally. Problems that Congress -- and the CPSC -- refuse to acknowledge.
The CPSIA -- Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act -- sets forth stringent regulations covering all products intended for use by children under age 12. CPSIA requires testing and certification - not just of the product components (e.g., ink, paint, paper, textiles, plastic, wood, etc.), but of the entire finished products as well - for nearly any children's item.
Take a look at those product components (which is by no means an exhaustive list) and you'll begin to see the problem. Very rarely does any business -- big or small -- manufacture and assemble every single component of every single item they carry. They rely on suppliers. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a softcover children's book breaks down into multiple components that likely come from multiple suppliers -- paper, ink, staples, even the plastic coating on the cover of the book.
That leads me to the next phase of the problem. The CPSIA isn't limited to toys; in fact, it's extremely broad and includes very few exceptions. Some of the more jaw-dropping examples:
"With few exceptions, the law covers all products intended primarily for children under 12. That includes clothing, fabric and textile goods of all kinds: hats, shoes, diapers, hair bands, sports pennants, Scouting patches, local school-logo gear and so on.
And paper goods: books, flash cards, board games, baseball cards, kits for home schoolers, party supplies and the like. And sporting equipment, outdoor gear, bikes, backpacks and telescopes. And furnishings for kids' rooms.
And videogame cartridges and audio books. And specialized assistive and therapeutic gear used by disabled and autistic kids."
Even if you never bought anything from Etsy or a small boutique or a craft fair, the CPSIA will still affect you. Every baby wears diapers. Every child wears clothes and shoes.
The big manufacturers will pass along the costs of testing to consumers. The entrepreneurs are already clearing out their stock, as they know they cannot conform to the required testing.
Sounds alarmist? Check out this example from the Forbes commentary quoted above:
"Again with relatively few exceptions, makers of these goods can't rely only on materials known to be unproblematic (natural dyed yarn, local wood) or that come from reputable local suppliers, or even ones that are certified organic.
Instead they must put a sample item from each lot of goods through testing after complete assembly, and the testing must be applied to each component. For a given hand-knitted sweater, for example, one might have to pay not just, say, $150 for the first test, but added-on charges for each component beyond the first: a button or snap, yarn of a second color, a care label, maybe a ribbon or stitching -- with each color of stitching thread having to be tested separately.
Suddenly the bill is more like $1,000--and that's just to test the one style and size. The same sweater in a larger size, or with a different button or clasp, would need a new round of tests--not just on the button or clasp, but on the whole garment. The maker of a kids' telescope (with no suspected problems) was quoted a $24,000 testing estimate, on a product with only $32,000 in annual sales."
Not only do the individual components of an item have to be tested -- and the finished product must be tested too -- but each and every variant (even size and color) of that very same product is required to undergo the very same testing.
Come February 10, it will be illegal to ship items for sale that have not been tested. Items cannot even be given away for free.
February 10 is a deadline for the rest of us too. Schedule your garage sales and Salvation Army pickups prior to that date, because thrift stores and resale shops aren't exempt from the CPSIA. Not only does that mean that vintage copies of classic books may get pulled from the shelves, but needy families who regularly shop at the retail outlets of Goodwill and Salvation Army, as well as the more upscale consignment shops, may be out of luck.
But this is the part that really confounds me. Congressional representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Bobby Rush (D-IL) penned the CPSIA and handed it over to the CPSC to execute. Now, in the face of the impossibility of compliance, Waxman and Rush sent a letter to the CPSC (PDF) urging them to make exemptions and provide more detailed guidance to businesses regarding compliance.
Congress wrote the law; the CPSC has to enforce it. Congress is feeling the pressure from voters, and they're scapegoating the CPSC.
Not that the CPSC is blameless by any means. Former CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese discussed the CPSIA with the Baltimore NBC affiliate, insisting that "the law is not defined" and offering vague statements regarding compliance such as "they can look at it and make an informed decision". Vallese has since stepped down, but the CPSC has yet to step up and address business concerns that persist.
Even the CPSIA FAQ at the CPSC's own website is filled with vagaries. When the answers frequently contain some variant of "It depends", it's really not surprising that businesses, both big and small, are confused.
So what can we do?
The CPSIA itself is a mess, and Congress and the CPSC are busy pointing fingers at one another. What we need is to delay enactment of the CPSIA until it can be amended or clarified such that it can be understood by everyone it affects - business owners and consumers alike.
For more information on how to voice your concerns regarding the CPSIA, check out these links:
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