Editorial: Safety rule too broad?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 6, 2009

If you’re planning to shop for children’s clothes or toys at a thrift store, you might want to do it before Feb. 10. Your choices could dwindle after that date.
That’s when a regulatory package called the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act will take effect. The act 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.
So far, it sounds like a simple enough measure with a goal most people would support. Who doesn’t want to protect kids from exposure to lead or toxic chemicals?
It’s an apparently unintended consequence, however, that’s raising concern among some thrift-store operators and customers. They’re worried that the law as written isn’t limited to the manufacture and distribution of new products, but to the secondary sale of used products, as well. The law mandates that all products sold for those 12 and younger ó including clothing ó be tested for lead and phthalates, which are chemicals used in the manufacture of some plastics. Products that haven’t been tested will be considered hazardous, regardless of whether they actually contain lead.
Obviously, non-profit thrifts and small for-profit businesses can’t afford such testing. So what are thrifts supposed to do with the uncertified children’s clothing already on racks and shelves?
“They’ll all have to go to the landfill,” Adele Meyer, executive director of the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops, told the Los Angeles Times.
Whether the impact will actually be so severe isn’t clear at this point, and with only a month before the law is supposed to take effect, thrift organizations and independent businesses desperately need some clarification.
Jaymie Eichorn, director of marketing and communications for Goodwill Industries of Northwest N.C., said officials with Goodwill International, the parent organization, are in talks with the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission to find out how this will impact Goodwill’s thrift stores and, presumably, similar outlets that sell used clothing for children. So far, in filings posted on its Web site, the CPSC appears ready to grant some leeway on items made of natural materials like wood, cotton or wool, which pose little risk of toxicity, but that doesn’t address the larger question of how far the act’s regulatory reach should extend.
A spokesman in Sen. Richard Burr’s office says they’re aware of the concerns and plan to address them through the Commerce Committee, once new members of Congress are seated, the new president takes office and legislators get back to business. Let’s hope that with clarifications from the Safety Commission and some legislative fine-turning, the Safety Improvement Act’s regulatory aim can be sharpened. Considering the number of safety recalls and the grave risks to children from toxic exposures, it’s clear that better safeguards are needed. But regulators should be able to accomplish that without unduly restricting the sale of used children’s clothing and toys, especially when hard times make it necessary for more families to rely on such purchases.