Putting Children’s Products to the (Lead) Test

I recently spoke to a group of business leaders from the apparel industry, many of whom make children’s clothes and other kids’ products. Many small businesses that make children’s products are concerned about implementation of a new federal law, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), which sets strict limits on lead and phthalates in children’s products. Since CEH has a long history of work to end lead threats to children, the industry group was interested to hear our perspective.

There were a few polite questions following my speech, but when the group broke for lunch, I was quickly surrounded by representatives from companies who wanted to know more about the law, what they needed to do to comply with it, and why a little lead in clothing would hurt anyone anyway. (Pictured above: In 2007, Curious George dolls were recalled after CEH found high levels of lead)

Interestingly, on the same day that I spoke to the apparel makers in New York, the New York Times ran a story about small toymakers upset about the new lead rules. The story featured a Maine toymaker who was concerned about the increased costs he faced for his wooden toys. “This is absurd,” he told the Times. “The law was targeted at large toymakers using lead. There was no exclusion for benign products.”

For more than a decade before the new federal rules were even considered, CEH worked to end lead threats to children from dozens of products, including baby bibs, diaper rash creams, candy, children’s lunchboxes, children’s jewelry, children’s medicines and many others. In our work, we routinely found extremely high levels of lead in many products – indeed, in children’s jewelry it was common to find metals that were 80-100% lead. In one 2006 case, a four-year old died after ingesting a metal charm that was nearly 100% lead, and we uncovered several other cases of children who swallowed or chewed on lead-tainted jewelry, and who suffered potentially life-long harm.

But in the past year, our testing of jewelry has found fewer instances of children’s products with high lead levels – a stark contrast to the masses of lead-tainted jewelry we often found just a few years ago. While there is still some lead-tainted jewelry on store shelves, the new federal rules are working to lessen the problem, and more products for our children are now safer.

We understand that small companies need fair rules and application of the law that accounts for their size and ability to meet legal requirements. The Maine toy maker who complained to the Times should know that some accommodations are in process: in January 2009, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) proposed a list of natural materials, including wood, which would be exempted from the new lead testing requirements.

Another good step would be for Congress to establish a fund, paid by fees on larger companies, to help small businesses with testing costs associated with the new lead law. When we worked with the California Attorney General on a legal agreement to eliminate lead risks from imported candies, we established such a fund paid by the major producers to help small producers comply with the law.

The intent of the CPSIA is to protect kids from hazardous chemicals, not to give larger companies, who were responsible for the vast majority of the lead-tainted recalled products in the past, a competitive advantage in the marketplace.