Enough already! It’s time to amend the lead law
By Richard Woldenberg
04/06/11 02:51 PM ET
After almost three years of bickering over the law regulating lead in children’s products, a comprehensive amendment is finally up for discussion in the House of Representatives. It’s about time.
In August 2008, the 110th Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) in an overreaction to notorious lead-in-paint toy recalls. Claiming that weak regulation “caused” these violations of law (lead-in-paint has been illegal for decades), consumer groups coined a slogan to sum it up: “There is NO safe level of lead”. Stooping low to sow fear, they have even warned the CPSC about the perils of bicycle licking and playing brass instruments in the school band. Their lead slogan has been repeated endlessly to justify a stifling, over-reaching law which has accomplished little but damaged many fine companies, killed jobs and depressed markets. The CPSIA deems companies "guilty until proven innocent" by forcing them to test products over and over again at huge expense to prove compliance with the new lead standard.
The screams of law-abiding companies have been consistently ignored by CPSC as it has implemented ever-harsher regulations under the new law. The safety agency is even considering ratcheting down permissible lead from 300 ppm to the unimaginably low 100 ppm level. Economics be damned!
In contrast to the claims of CPSIA backers warning that the sky is falling, CPSC recall records list only four alleged lead injuries from 1999 to 2010 among the nation’s 50+ million young children. Advocates have never produced victim case histories to justify the draconian rules and simply wag their fingers at anyone daring to question their cherished law.
As directed by Congress, the CPSC has dutifully banned the sale of rhinestones to children, ended the era of youth model ATVs and forbidden the use of brass bushings in toy car wheel assemblies. Why? They might emit a single atom of lead! The supporters of the law justify these extreme actions on the grounds that lead is a poison but somehow overlook that kids are exposed to more lead every day from eating a snack, drinking water or playing outside in the fresh air. The descent into regulation purgatory is down a slippery slope.
Being governed by this law can give you fits. For example, to be able to continue to legally sell our geology kits to schools (featuring real rocks!), we must give this warning: “Caution: Federal law requires us to advise that the rocks in this educational product may contain lead and might be harmful if swallowed.” We don’t relish looking like idiots at the hand of the U.S. government.
We’re certainly not alone in feeling the pain. The law affects many safe products spanning the U.S. economy, like books, t-shirts and shoes, ATVs and dirt bikes, bicycles, donated or resale goods, musical instruments, pens and educational products. The number of companies touched by the CPSIA is in the many thousands.
The CPSIA was written in response to failings of big companies, but hammers small and medium-sized companies with particular vengeance. Our small business has already lost customers who now feel that selling toys is too confusing or too much of a “hassle”. Market shrinkage courtesy of the federal government is our new reality. The technical rules and ever-changing legal requirements are beyond the capability of all but the most highly-trained quality managers or lawyers to comprehend. For this reason, small businesses bear the greatest risk of liability under the law, despite being responsible for almost no injuries from lead in the last decade. The double whammy of massive new regulatory obligations and the prospect of devastating liability are driving small businesses out of the children’s market.
Our family business makes educational products, and we work tirelessly to ensure that our products are safe. We have tested our products for decades now. None of us could ever tolerate lead poisoning. Nevertheless, I believe that our company should not be crushed by our government over some consumer groups' phobias and junk science.
The 112th Congress should know better after years of hearings, comment letters, op-eds, pleading and even direct appeals from the five CPSC Commissioners. To quote The Who, "We won’t get fooled again." If Congress is serious about fixing our economy and creating jobs, it’s time to lift the yoke of the CPSIA and set the children’s product market free once again.
Richard Woldenberg is Chairman of Learning Resources, Inc.