Lead rule weighs on kids’ clothiers

Posted Jan. 11, 2009, at 9:04 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Adrienne Chandler was worried.

The owner of The Growing Place, a Hammond Street store which sells used clothing, toys and other children’s items, Chandler was facing possible closure of her business because of a law limiting the sale of children’s items with high lead levels that goes into effect Feb. 10.

The Growing Place and similar businesses gained breathing room Thursday when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission released a clarification to the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. While Chandler is feeling relief because secondhand shops won’t face the same restrictions as other retailers, her business still could be held responsible if she is found selling items that violate the law.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s still playing with fire,” Chandler said. “We felt like we had to shut our doors on Feb. 10. Now, apparently, we can keep them open and hope that nobody comes in [to test for lead].”

The law, which was signed Aug. 14, 2008, requires that domestic manufacturers and importers certify that products intended and designed for children ages 12 and under and manufactured after Feb. 10 meet new standards for lead and phthalates and prohibits stores from selling items that fail to meet new mandatory standards for toys. The intent is to inhibit toy recalls.

Under the new law, children’s products with more than 600 parts per million total lead cannot be sold lawfully in the U.S. on or after Feb. 10, even if they were manufactured before that date. The total lead limit drops to 300 ppm on Aug. 14. Certain children’s products manufactured on or after Feb. 10 cannot be sold if they contain more than 0.1 percent of certain specific phthalates, which are chemicals added to plastic to increase durability and flexibility.

Phthalates were used in pacifiers, soft rattles and teethers before 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Animal studies have shown that phthalates have the potential to cause reproductive problems or cancer.

Chandler and her husband, Tim, were concerned they would have to test their products for evidence of lead — at a cost of about $500 per test, Adrienne Chandler said. Every component of a clothing item would have to be tested, the Chandlers added. On a jacket, that would mean buttons, zippers, cuffs and other areas.

Lead can be present in children’s clothing in paint or attachments such zippers or snaps, said Consumer Products Safety Commission spokeswoman Arlene Flecha.

The testing cost for small stores and nonprofit organizations likely would have been crippling, which was why the Chandlers contacted Sen. Susan Collins’ office.

Collins’ staffers asked the commission about the law, Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley said, and learned that they weren’t the only congressional office in the country interested in a clarification — others also had been in touch with the safety commission.

The commission late Thursday issued a clarification which stated sellers of used children’s products, such as thrift stores and consignment shops, are not required to certify that those products meet the new lead limits, phthalates standards or new toy standards.

Chandler and others no longer will be required to test their inventory, but the catch is that resellers still cannot sell items that exceed the lead limit and should therefore avoid items that are likely to have lead content unless they have testing or other information to certify the items meet the legal limits.

Sellers found in violation could face civil and-or criminal penalties. Tim Chandler said violations could bring a fine of $100,000 and five years in prison.

“For the manufacturer who has a million bolts of fabric, he can test that, it’s one thing,” she said. “People like me, or Goodwill, there’s no way for us to test those things, so that stuff would be deemed hazardous. Either you sell illegally, which obviously we can’t do, or you close your doors. It’s been really hard to get clarifications.”

It’s a confusing law for everyone involved. Even Goodwill Industries, which has 18 retail stores in Maine, including stores in Bangor and Brewer, is unsure of where it stands.

Goodwill doesn’t keep track of the amount of children’s items it sells. However, a company spokeswoman said those items are a large part of the organization’s donation stream.

“While [the CPSC clarification] seems to exempt thrift stores, it’s still unclear,” said Michelle Smith, the communications coordinator for the Portland-based Goodwill Industries of Northern New England. “We’re partnering with Goodwill International and working closely with the CPSC to seek more guidance and clarification on the issue.”

It’s enough to have Adrienne Chandler worried not only for her business, but for customers who depend on stores like hers.

“I think, with the economy the way it is, it’s just another kick in the gut for people,” she said. “I have people who are really struggling with heat and food, and they can’t afford to … pay $12 for shoes for their little guy. They count on places like the Growing Place, and now it’s like, we can’t help you.”

Facts about lead and children

Lead is even more dangerous to children under age 6:

— At this age children’s brains and nervous systems are more sensitive.

— Children’s growing bodies absorb more lead.

— Babies and young children often put their hands and other objects, such as paint chips from old houses and toys, in their mouths.

— Even children who seem healthy can have high levels of lead in their bodies.

In children, exposure of low levels of lead can cause:

— Nervous system and kidney damage.

— Learning disabilities.

— Speech, language and behavior problems.

— Poor muscle coordination.

— Decreased muscle and bone growth.

— Hearing damage.

— Low levels of lead exposure are most common, but high levels of lead can cause seizures, unconsciousness and, in some cases, death.

To protect children:

— Wash children’s hands often.

— Keep play areas clean.

— Keep children from chewing painted surfaces.

— Make sure children eat nutritious, low-fat meals high in iron and calcium.

A simple blood test at a state or local health screening program can detect high levels of lead.

For information on state programs, contact the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention at 287-8016 or go to www.maine.gov/dhhs/boh/index.shtml.

For more information:

The National Lead Information Center: 800-424-LEAD (424-5323)

www.epa.gov/lead

www.hud.gov/offices/lead

Consumer Product Safety Commission

800-638-2772

www.cpsc.gov

Information from the Consumer Product Safety Commission

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