Burden of Safety Law Imperils Small Toymakers
For 35 years, William John Woods has made wooden toys for children. Each one of the 2,000 or so he makes each year passes through his hands at his shop in Ogunquit, Maine, and no child, he said, has ever been hurt by one of his small boats, cars, helicopters or rattles.
But now he and others like him — makers of small toys and owners of toy resale shops and boutique stores — say their livelihood is being threatened by federal legislation enacted in the last year to protect children from toxic toys through more extensive testing. Big toymakers, including those whose tainted imports from China led to the recall of 45 million toys and spurred Congress to take action, have more resources and are able to comply with the new law’s requirements.
“This is absurd,” said Mr. Woods, whose toys are made of maple, walnut and cherry and finished with walnut oil and beeswax from a local apiary. He estimates it would cost him $30,000 — a figure he calculated from having to pay $400 in required tests for each of the 80 or so different items he produces — to show that they are not toxic.
“I use beeswax,” Mr. Woods said. “The law was targeted at large toymakers using lead. There was no exclusion for benign products.”
These homegrown toymakers are banding together to portray themselves as victims of bureaucrats and consumer advocates, and have started letter-writing campaigns to Congress.
The Handmade Toy Alliance, which has a section of its Web site titled “Countdown to Extinction,” sponsored a march on Washington last April and continues to buttonhole members of Congress. Still others have hired the Washington lobbying firm of Rudy Giuliani.
“The law is flawed,” said Rob Wilson, a director of the Handmade Toy Alliance, which wants Congress to reopen the 2008 legislation to new amendments. “It reflects decision-making that in a sane world makes no sense.”
“The law isn’t making toys more safe, but is making everything more convoluted,” added Mr. Wilson, owner of Challenge and Fun, an Ashland, Mass., company that sells organic toys from Europe. “We’re all losers, including the consumer.”
The law, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, was overwhelmingly passed by Congress in August 2008. For the first time, it set out mandatory safety standards for products used by children under the age of 12 and required toy manufacturers to test their products to prove that they were safe.
New regulations will not go into effect until February, but many of the big toy companies are not waiting — they are already testing toys in their labs, which have been certified by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, or through third parties.
The government estimates that $22 billion worth of toys are imported each year, mainly from big toymakers with plants overseas.
Before this law was passed, testing of toys was not required, and compliance with safety standards was voluntary. But the furor over the sale and importation of toys containing lead and other toxic materials, which led to widespread toy recalls in 2007 and 2008, assured its passage.Some major companies lobbied to shape it, including toy manufacturers, like Mattel, and Exxon Mobil, a maker of phthalates, substances used in many toys that are largely banned by the law.
The issue has put small toymakers at odds with consumer groups, which oppose any efforts to have Congress tinker with the new law out of fear that larger companies will try to gut its core provisions.
“This is landmark legislation,” said Nancy A. Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, a nonprofit that focused on safety in children’s products that supported the measure.
“These groups are not above using the small crafters to reopen the legislation and get the changes they want.”
Ms. Cowles also said parents needed to be assured that their children’s toys were safe, regardless of who made or sold them.
“From a product safety standpoint, it doesn’t make a difference whether the toy comes from a local store or a national chain,” said Ms. Cowles. “A child doesn’t know the difference and parents have the right to expect a safe product.”
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has said it wants to draft regulations that have enough flexibility to address the legitimate concerns of toy handicrafters while still upholding the new law.
“The commission is trying to find the right balance that would satisfy and address the needs to help businesses stay open and yet give parents more confidence that when they buy a product for their children, it’s been tested and meets more stringent standards,” said Scott Wolfson, a commission spokesman.
Small toymakers and sellers are particularly irked by the fact that the new law allows large toy manufacturers, like Mattel, to conduct their product safety tests in their own labs, which must be certified by the federal government, while handicrafters would have to use third-party labs.“They’re the ones who got us into this mess, and they can do their testing on their own,” said Jill Chuckas, secretary of the Handmade Toy Alliance and owner of Crafty Baby in Stamford, Conn.
The commission is considering requiring testing of components used by toy handicrafters, rather than the final product itself. This testing would be done instead by component suppliers — for instance, button makers would have to certify that their products were lead-free.
That has won support from some small toymakers, who would be able to use only components that had passed these safety tests.
Thrift shops and used-toy stores have also joined the fight. Thrift stores say they have had to clear their stores of old toys and children’s clothes out of concern that some items might not be safe. Children’s books made before 1985, for example, contain lead in their ink.
“It’s been devastating for us,” said Kitty Boyce, owner of the Kid’s Closet in Rochester, Ill., who has emptied her shop of much of her children’s merchandise and is selling adult items instead. “For us, there will be no bottom line this year.”
Adele R. Meyer, executive director of the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops, based in St. Clair Shores, Mich., said much of the new law made little sense. “People are taking away all items for children 12 and under,’ she said.
“But how many 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds are going to be eating books?”
Just a few notes. I called my congresscritter last year about this legislation, and was promised that precisely this would not happen. I also asked about if it would force destruction of older books. They assured me this would not happen. They lied about both. Through regulation the government has managed a destruction of books for kids (including educational) created before 1985, and is set to destroy most all handmade small-toy businesses.