Some owners say the cost of testing for toxic lead and phthalates will shut their businesses. The law goes into effect Feb. 10.By Alana Semuels January 2, 2009 Barring a reprieve, regulations set to take effect next month could force thousands of clothing retailers and thrift stores to throw away trunkloads of children's clothing.
The law, aimed at keeping lead-filled merchandise away from children, mandates that all products sold for those age 12 and younger -- including clothing -- be tested for lead and phthalates, which are chemicals used to make plastics more pliable. Those that haven't been tested will be considered hazardous, regardless of whether they actually contain lead.
"They'll all have to go to the landfill," said Adele Meyer, executive director of the National Assn. of Resale and Thrift Shops.
The new regulations take effect Feb. 10 under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which was passed by Congress last year in response to widespread recalls of products that posed a threat to children, including toys made with lead or lead-based paint.
Supporters say the measure is sorely needed. One health advocacy group said it found high levels of lead in dozens of products purchased around the country, including children's jewelry, backpacks and ponchos.
Lead can also be found in buttons or charms on clothing and on appliques that have been added to fabric, said Charles Margulis, communications director for the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland. A child in Minnesota died a few years ago after swallowing a lead charm on his sneaker, he said.
But others say the measure was written too broadly. Among the most vocal critics to emerge in recent weeks are U.S.-based makers of handcrafted toys and handmade clothes, as well as thrift and consignment shops that sell children's clothing.
"We will have to lock our doors and file for bankruptcy," said Shauna Sloan, founder of Salt Lake City-based franchise Kid to Kid, which sells used children's clothing in 75 stores across the country and had planned to open a store in Santa Clara, Calif., this year.
There is the possibility of a partial reprieve. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is responsible for enforcing the law, on Monday will consider exempting clothing and toys made of natural materials such as wool or wood. The commission does not have the authority to change the law but can decide how to interpret it.
But exempting natural materials does not go far enough, said Stephen Lamar, executive vice president of the American Apparel and Footwear Assn. Clothes made of cotton but with dyes or non-cotton yarn, for example, might still have to be tested, as would clothes that are cotton-polyester blends, he said.
"The law introduces an extraordinarily large number of testing requirements for products for which everyone knows there's no lead," he said.
Clothing and thrift trade groups say the law is flawed because it went through Congress too quickly. By deeming that any product not tested for lead content by Feb. 10 be considered hazardous waste, they contend, stores will have to tell customers that clothing they were allowed to sell Feb. 9 became banned overnight.
These groups say the law should be changed so that it applies to products made after Feb. 10, not sold after that date.
That would take action by Congress, however, because the Consumer Product Safety Commission's general counsel has already determined that the law applies retroactively, said commission spokesman Scott Wolfson.
The regulations also apply to new clothing. That won't be a problem for large manufacturers and retailers, industry experts say, but it will be a headache for small operators such as Molly Orr, owner of Molly O Designs in Las Vegas.
Orr has already produced her spring line of children's clothes. She says she can't afford the $50,000 it would cost to have a private lab test her clothing line, so she's trying to sell her inventory at a steep discount before Feb. 10. After that, she is preparing to close her business.
"We have a son with autism, so we are all about cleaning up the toxins that our children are exposed to," she said. "But I think the law needs to be looked at more closely to see how it is affecting the economy in general."
Thrift store owners say the law stings because children's garments often come in new or nearly new, because children typically outgrow clothing quickly.
Carol Vaporis, owner of Duck Duck Goose Consignment in New Port Richey, Fla., said her store stocks barely used brand-name clothing from places such as Limited Too and Gymboree.
"We really provide a service to the community to help people get clothes for their children they otherwise couldn't afford," she said.
Families have been bringing more clothes to consignment stores, where they get a chunk of the proceeds, to earn a little cash this winter, she said. She plans to contact her congressional representatives and senators to ask them to amend the law but says there's not enough awareness about the repercussions of the law to force anything to change.
Many retailers and thrift stores appear to be unaware that the law is changing. Of half a dozen Southern California children's thrift stores contacted by The Times, only one had heard of the law. Organizations such as Goodwill say they're still investigating how the law will affect them because there is so much confusion about what will be banned.
Cynthia Broockman, who owns two consignment stores and a thrift shop in Virginia, recently stopped accepting children's products for resale. That raised the ire of a man who was trying to sell his son's castoffs there and had not heard of the new rules.
"I think it's not understood by people how sweeping and far-reaching this is," she said. "The ripples that are going to go forth from this are just astonishing."