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Lead law might do harm

Many local business owners bracing for possible impact on their livelihoods

Many local business owners bracing for possible impact on their livelihoods

February 02, 2009|By MEG H. PARTINGTON

Legislation meant to protect America's children has some area business owners fearing for the health of their livelihoods and those of fellow retailers.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) was signed into law Aug. 14, 2008, but many of its mandates take effect Tuesday, Feb. 10. Congress passed the act in response to numerous recalls of children's products, particularly imports, many of which contained lead or lead-based paint.

"We all want our children to have safe things," says Laura Turman, owner of One Two Kangaroo Toy Store (www.onetwokangaroo.com) in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Also viewing the CPSIA from a maternal standpoint, Tiffani Graves of Martinsburg, W.Va., says "the intention behind the law was good."

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From a professional point of view, however, she sees it as a harmful measure that could force her to shut down her custom cloth diaper-making business.

"I think there were a lot of things they didn't anticipate," Graves says of those who created the law, including the downward spiral of the economy that followed its passage.

In December, when Graves heard about the legislation, "my first reaction was utter disbelief and my next was a migraine," she says. The mother of six and owner of Mudpie Babies (www.mudpiebabies.com) says the legislation is so hard to interpret that 10 lawyers could read it 10 different ways.

Graves is most concerned about the requirements for lead testing of children's merchandise. Manufacturers and private labelers of children's products must have their wares tested by accredited independent labs and must issue certificates showing the products meet lead content standards, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's Web site (www.cpsc.gov/about/cpsia/cpsia.html). The CPSC is responsible for enforcing the new consumer product safety law.

According to documents dated Jan. 15, the commission is considering exempting some materials from the lead-testing requirements, including wood; natural fibers such as cotton, silk, wool, hemp, flax and linen; and other natural materials such as coral, amber, feathers, fur and untreated leather because they typically do not exceed the acceptable limits outlined by the CPSIA. Those materials' possible exclusion from testing only applies if they are not treated with any additional chemicals, such as pigments, dyes and coatings, according to the documents found on the CPSC's Web site.

While Graves is confident the diapers she sells mostly online will pass muster, proving that is just too pricey.

"I provide a reliable product that is free of lead and phthalates (chemicals used to make plastics more pliable)," Graves says.

Graves says she would have to start making larger quantities of each of her diapers so they could be tested. That would negate the customized aspect of her business, making it one of the "dime-a-dozen" cloth diaper producers available.

To make up for the testing costs, she would have to raise the prices of her creations, which she says are already on the "upper end" of the cloth-diaper spectrum. Her most basic diapers cost $20 to $30 each, but the embroidered varieties, which are her best sellers, cost $5 to $35 per diaper for the embroidery alone.

A tough sell

Like Graves, Jennifer Guenther is frustrated by the wording of the CPSIA.

As the CEO of Enkore Kids in Boonsboro, which sells new and used items, including clothing, toys, equipment and baby carriers, she is particularly concerned about the law's guidelines for secondhand wares.

While the CPSC's Web site says those who sell used children's products are not required to certify that their merchandise meets the new lead limits or phthalates standards, it adds that those who sell items that exceed the limits could face civil and/or criminal penalties.

As the law stands now, "we are definitely opened up for liability," Guenther says.

She says she vigilantly checks recall notices and pulls any items she finds on the lists off her shelves

"I have done my due diligence as best I can," says Guenther, the mother of an 8-year-old daughter.

She considered purchasing X-ray-type guns that test for lead but their $30,000 to $50,000 price tags are prohibitive.

"We can't afford the testing," Guenther says.

She isn't the only one.

Brien Poffenberger, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, says while the CPSIA is "well-intentioned, with a lot of upsides," the high cost of lead testing could strain small businesses.

"Their cost structure cannot withstand the rigor" of the mandates, particularly when the economy is suffering, Poffenberger says.

"If you're making a million widgets and I'm making 100 widgets, the cost of testing is the same," Poffenberger says.

But a large retailer can spread those costs out over a larger number of products and therefore will not have to raise its prices as high as a smaller merchant would, Poffenberger explains.

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