Safe enough to eat?

You, too, Thomas? In June 2007, we learned that even the perpetually smiling tank engine could be a threat. The toymaker, U.S.-based  RC2 Corp., recalled 1.5 million toys — about two dozen cars and accessories — after it discovered that its manufacturer in China had used lead paint. The sale of those Thomas toys was already illegal under Consumer Product Safety Commision regulations,  and in December 2009 RC2 Corp. was ordered to pay $1.25 million dollars in civil penalties. But public reaction was clear: Our laws aren’t protecting us and our toys aren’t safe.

Many parents started reading toy packaging like they read food labels: “Made in China” became the equivalent of “trans fats.” Many started searching for toys made in America and others turned to small manufacturers and individual handcrafters on sites like

At the same time, Congress took up the issue. Minnesota’s own U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar wrote the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act in September 2007, while the recalls were still going on, and it passed both the House and the Senate nearly unanimously. President Bush signed it into law in August 2008.

Much of the many-pronged law is based on decades-old safety standards for children’s products, from the length any straps or strings should be to prevent strangulation to what constitutes a choking hazard for small children. It also lowers the allowable lead content and set new limits on certain phthalates (chemicals found in many soft plastics, some are already banned under Minnesota law). The law applies to all products intended for children under 12, from diapers to toys to books and bicycles, and requires all manufacturers to have their products tested at third-party labs for chemical content and mechanical hazards and label them with the date and location of manufacture.

Knowledge is power, right? At a time when very little was passing Congress unanimously and Jane Consumer felt like she just couldn’t catch a break, this felt like a victory.

Unintended consequences
When Dan Marshall heard about the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, his reaction was very different. Marshall and his wife opened their store, Peapods, on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul in 1999. Among the glass baby bottles, cotton diapers, wooden teething rings, and hand-dyed dress-up clothes, you’d be hard-pressed to find any plastics or branded characters. Most of the products are made in small batches, by hand, in small shops. Many are imported from Europe, where strict consumer safety standards have been in place for years.

Peapods came to be because of many of the same concerns behind the CPSIA: Protecting our kids from excess chemicals and other hazards.

And yet, when one of his suppliers mentioned the CPSIA to Marshall shortly after it passed, he was worried. “I realized this is going to affect almost every item in our store,” he said. “It would actually benefit large toymakers like Mattel, who make things in batches of hundreds of thousands and can easily comply with this. But the small companies we buy from make things in batches of a dozen or less and can’t possibly comply.”

While, he says, most small domestic manufacturers are holding on, they are raising prices or cutting lines of products in order to cope with the burden of testing and labeling. The popular German and Swedish toys, however, are another story. “Frankly, we’ve been losing vendors right and left because of this law, most of them from Europe,” Marshall says. “European toymakers, the smaller ones that we buy from, aren’t able to comply with this law and several of them have decided to withdraw from the U.S. market altogether…. They’ve already been tested to European standards, which have been in place for years, but they would have had to be retested to the slightly different U.S. standards.”

“It’s one of these situations where the intent of the law makes perfectly good sense,” says Jamie Seeley Kreisman of Beka, Inc., which makes wooden toys and furniture for stores like Peapods and for schools. “It was passed in response to huge-volume recalls, huge health risk problems from very large manufacturers that were having products manufactured for them in other countries in factories that they didn’t own by people who were not their employees and they were unable to maintain the kind of control, the kind of oversight that was required to make sure that what they were requesting was actually being done.”

Seeley Kreisman has been making wooden items — starting with looms and then moving into children’s items like easels, tables, and block sets — with his brothers in St. Paul since 1972. He says that, while the new law won’t change how they make their products or what materials they use, the testing requirement has already forced Beka to cut back on the variety of products it sells. He gives the example of easels: Right now Beka makes easels with a variety of options — whiteboards, chalkboards, plastic trays, wooden trays. Want two chalkboards instead of a whiteboard? Well, that’s a new product that must be tested separately.

“We’ve been testing all along,” Seeley Kreisman says. “But we have only tested our larger-volume products that we sell to large companies. We’ve designed products based on the [CPSC] guidelines so we haven’t felt that we needed to test. That used to be the requirement: You manufacture something so it isn’t a choking hazard. The new rule is you manufacture something that is not a choking hazard but then you have to send it to a third-party lab so they can verify that it’s not a choking hazard.”

He’s also struggling with the labeling requirement. Plastic toys made in huge batches can be labeled simply by changing a slug in a machine that stamps it with the date. A sticker isn’t permanent enough to comply with the law, so he’s left with branding the wood (expensive) or, he laughs, hand-writing with a ball-point pen. “It’s nonsensical.”

Susan Burns has been making dress-up clothes through her Golden Valley–based Fairy Finery for about a dozen years. The fabric she uses is exempt from testing and labeling but as soon as she adds any zippers, trims, and buttons, that product must be tested, in each and every individual iteration. The law would also make it nearly impossible to sell the prototypes she makes to test a new design, an important way for small-batch sewists to recoup costs.

Burns, too, has tested her own products extensively and believes in the spirit behind the law. “I believe that the concerns regarding safety are important and part of the mission statement of my business is to create safe, durable, high-quality and creative products for children,” she says. “I’m not against the idea of protecting the consumer and children. I do think [the law] was not thought through effectively for how the manufacturing channels operate.”

Small victories
In late 2008, Marshall founded the Handmade Toy Alliance, bringing together small-batch manufacturers, toy sellers, and concerned citizens from around the country. The endeavor has become something of a second job for him, eating up about 20 hours a week, including three trips to Washington, D.C. — one in the middle of the busy Christmas season.

The Alliance recommends a number of changes to the CPSIA, including harmonizing rules with the European Union and allowing manufacturers to test components rather than finished items. For Beka and Fairy Finery, for example, that would mean that once a button or chalkboard had been certified safe it could be used in any product without further testing. The CPSC has told the Alliance, Marshall says, that it is working on rules to allow component testing.

In addition, the CPSC has announced that certain natural products — such as wood, cloth, and yarn — do not need to be tested for lead or phthalates. It has also extended the testing and labeling deadline twice (manufacturers now have until August 2010), although the safety requirements are already in effect.

Both Marshall and Seeley Kreisman say that they feel the Consumer Product Safety Commission has been fairly responsive to their concerns and that things are moving in the right direction, but they will soon hit the limits of the CPSC’s power to interpret and enforce the law and they are pushing for a hearing before Congress to make further changes.

“The law doesn’t make any differentiation as to where something is made or the volume,” says Seeley Kreisman. “It’s the difference between the theory and the practice. The intention is admirable and needed; the actual application is the problem.”

Tricia Cornell edits Minnesota Parent.

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