Several manufacturers are exporting millions of dollars in children's sleepwear treated with the banned cancer-causing agent Tris in an effort to beat the expected extension of the domestic ban to overseas sales.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post has learned that some of the exported garments, which are being sold at distress prices, are returning to areas under U.S. jurisdiction. The Consumer Affairs Department of Puerto Rico confirmed late yesterday that one of the two largest department store chains on that island, New York Stores, is still selling the controversial sleepwear.
The garments being sold in Puerto Rico may be coming form Venezuela, one of the main receiving points of the recent sales from American manufacturers. It also is possible, however, that they are being directly dumped there by U.S. manufacturers.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission banned domestic sale of garments treated with Tris, a flame-retardant, a year ago after the Environmental Defense Fund filed a petition to the commission warning of the carcinogenic nature of the substance.
But last October, after considerable debate, the CPSC voted that it did not have jurisdiction to ban the export of the garments in question.
In recent week, however, a majority of the five-person commission has indicated plans to change that policy, and attempt to ban overseas sales as well.
And Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), said yesterday he plans to introduce legislation today that would give the CPSC a clear right to ban exports.
Lou Baters, president of Bates Nitewear, Inc., said he sold to exporters all of the $2.4 million worth of clothing domestic retailers under the original ban order.
"The last of it was shipped three weeks ago," he said in a telephone interview from his factory at Greensboro, N.C. Bates said he was paid "$5.50 a dozen for about 80,000 dozen garments, giving me about $400,000 for the $2.4 million worth of clothes."
He said his firm, which is family owned, was hit particularly hard by the ban because "all we sell is children's sleepwear."
Bates said he was "lucky to sell the stuff when I did," because after a news story last Sunday said the CPSC would likely vote for an export ban on May 11, "everybody began scurrying to sell the stuff. And if I still had them, I would be scurrying, too."
Bates said he made sure that all of his garments were shipped overseas. "We watched the containers be sealed, and we watched the boats sail." He said he would not allow any of the clothing to be sold to countries even bordering the United States.
Tom Meredith, comptroller of the Greensboro Manufacturing Company, said his firm also shipped about 80,000 dozen garments in recent weeks, but received only about $4.25 a dozen "for lots that usually sell at $28-30 a dozen."
Some of Greensboro's garments went to Venezuela, while others were sold to a local retailer who lost a court battle, when he tried to sell them in the U.S., and is now trying to export them himself.
"We just decided to bite the bullet and try and sell the stuff," Meredith said. "We say that they are trying to ban exports, so we had to do what we could."
Many manufacturers, including the two North Carolina firms are hoping for some form of relief from Congress for their losses.
Their case is based on the fact that they were originally ordered to put the substance in clothing as a fire-prevantion action. But many of the manufacturers are bitter about being caught in the middle, because the mills that produced the materials for the clothing didn't get caught with the losses. The manufacturers of the clothing were ordered to buy back the existing merchandise.
Although the relief legislation passed the Senate, it is still pending in the House, and it is still unclear what relier, if any, will be granted.
Dan Livingston, vise president of Bates, said that "conservatively" $5 million worth of Tris-treated sleepwear has been exported by all U.S. firms in recent weeks. He said many of the firms are hoping the government will still reimburse them for the difference between the distress sale prices and the value of the clothing.
But Rep. Waxman said it was "unconscionable that even without a law on the books American business would export items extablished to be cancer-causing. Many of these same businessmen will be coming before Congress asking for special compensation. Any businessman engaged in selling abroad should forfeit his rights to such compensation."
Waxman further said he was disappointed that the "CPSC moved as slowly as it did," to go after Tris exports.
The two new CPSC members, Susan King and Edith Barksdale Sloan, expressed anger at both the overseas and Puerto Rican sales.
And a third commissioner, David Pittle, said "our troops are out now finding out where all of this clothing is going, and if it is being sold in domestic markets."
Sloan said she was "outraged," that sales were reported in Puerto Rico, where she said "such sales are clearly banned."
King agreed, saying that CPSC legal advisors informed her such sales are illegal.