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Toymakers Assail Costs of New Law

A Learning Resources warehouse is full of toys the manufacturer might not be able to sell.
A Learning Resources warehouse is full of toys the manufacturer might not be able to sell. (By Carlos Javier Ortiz For The Washington Post)

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But lead paint was discovered in 2007 on thousands of imported toys, a scandal that alarmed consumers and revealed an industry where manufacturers do not always know what kinds of materials suppliers are using. Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act to set strict limits for lead in any toy or child's product and to force manufacturers to prove compliance before they can sell them.

The law also prohibits phthalates, one of the few chemical bans ever approved by Congress. Phthalates interfere with the endocrine system and may cause reproductive problems, especially for fetuses and infants. Research shows that children ingest the chemicals by acts as simple as chewing on a rubber duck.

Congress permanently prohibited three phthalates from toys and approved a temporary ban for three others in toys or child-care products that the child "can bring to his mouth," pending further study.

Most toymakers interviewed said they had no problem with prohibitions against lead or harmful chemicals. The implementation of the law is causing concern, they said.

"The law was poorly thought through by Congress," said Bob Burns, a spokesman for the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association. "I don't think enough time and consideration was given to this lead content limit and all of the consequences it's going to have. It has potentially created a huge economic impact at a horrible time in the U.S. economy."

Bicycle suppliers are upset because components such as the valve on a tire contain lead. Although children are not likely to ingest that lead, it may be at high enough levels to violate the new ceiling of 600 parts per million. Unless the manufacturers get an exemption, the law would make it illegal to sell kids' bikes.

Another problem is that the agency charged with interpreting and enforcing the law is overwhelmed.

"Because of the way Congress approached this, we will do our best to implement it, but it leaves us running ragged," said John G. Mullen, who heads the compliance office at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has about a dozen staffers wading through hundreds of requests from manufacturers seeking exemptions from the law.

Businesses as varied as ballpoint pen makers and book publishers have clamored for special consideration. The National Association of Manufacturers has petitioned the commission to exempt certain materials, products and inaccessible components. If CPSC does not make those exemptions, "hundreds of thousands of materials and products may be banned or will have to be tested for lead unnecessarily and at great expense," the petition said.

The commission can exempt materials that do not pose a health hazard or products that have lead embedded inside them that cannot be touched by a child. But that requires rulemaking, which can take years.

Two legal opinions issued by the commission have triggered particular controversy.

Cheryl Falvey, the CPSC's general counsel, ruled that the phthalates ban applies only to merchandise sold after the law takes effect Feb. 10. Retailers can still sell products containing phthalates that were made before the ban took effect.


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