Retailers Rush to Comply with Lead Law

Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times, February 11, 2009

Retailers across the country are yanking shoes, toys, Valentine's gifts
and other children's goods from shelves to comply with a strict lead
law that took effect Tuesday.

The repercussions of the hotly
debated Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which bans the sale of
children's products containing dangerous amounts of lead and chemicals
called phthalates, began rippling through the industry as manufacturers
realized the law wasn't going away.

Over the last two months, toy and clothing
manufacturers, publishing houses, thrift stores and others have rallied
against the law, saying it would force them to throw away thousands of
products that either hadn't been tested or were manufactured before the
law was publicized.

They had hoped for a reprieve from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which enforces the law, or from Congress.

But
the commission decided it didn't have the authority to delay the
enforcement date, and Congress decided not to add to the economic
stimulus package an amendment that would have changed the rule.

Environmentalists say the law took effect quickly for a reason: There are still dangerous toys on shelves.

The
Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit in Oakland, purchased 18
"Princess" bracelets and necklaces from a Disney Store in Concord,
Calif., on Tuesday and said that all exceeded the lead limits set by
the new law. A day earlier, the group found Valentine's Day toys at
Rite Aid and Longs Drug Stores that it said contained dangerous amounts
of lead.

A Walt Disney Co. spokesman said that the products
flagged by the environmental group had passed the required tests but
that the company was investigating the allegations.

Principle
Plastics, which has been in Los Angeles since 1948, is among the
manufacturers hit hard by the law. President David Hoyt said a major
retailer, whose name he would not disclose, told him it would stop
selling 22,000 pairs of his company's shoes because a label on them
contained lead.

The shoes had been tested in March, before the
law passed, Hoyt said. It wasn't until December, when he received the
shipment of shoes from his factories in China, that he learned that a
patch on the back of one model contained lead. Even so, he said, the
retailer sold them until this month, when it began pulling them from
shelves in advance of the deadline.

He expects the ordeal to cost him $250,000 in lost sales and penalties from the retailer.

"We're toast," Hoyt said. "There's nothing that's going to help me."

Many
retailers and manufacturers say that they still don't understand the
rules, and that recent decisions by judges and the Consumer Product
Safety Commission about phthalates, third-party testing and natural
materials made the law even more perplexing. On Monday, the commission
posted a guide on its website to answer some of the most frequently asked questions.

"We're
working overtime and just trying so hard to be in compliance and
understand these rules," said Mario Haug, vice president of Goodwill of
Southern California.

About 1% of toys and clothing on Goodwill
shelves had to be pulled to comply with the law, he said. Employees
stepped up enforcement this week as the deadline loomed.

The law
even applies to the automotive industry. Motorcycle and all-terrain
vehicle dealers pulled from shelves dozens of models and accessories,
aimed at kids, that are made of metal alloys containing lead. The
Motorcycle Industry Council has filed a petition to ask that ATV and
motorcycle components be excluded from the law, but it has not received
a decision, general counsel Paul Vitrano said.

Many
manufacturers and retailers have given up. Joseph Okapal, an Oklahoma
toy maker who produced cars and trucks from oak, said that rather than
test each of his $5 toys, he'd instead start making products for
adults, such as bookshelves and pencils. He believes he'll be able to
stay in business, but worries about the church bazaars that sold his
toys or rented him booths to sell them.

"We just don't have the time to chase these laws," he said. "That means money out of all of these people's pockets."

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