Congress's war on toys

By LISSA HARRIS  |  February 9, 2009

Wilson recently spent two days in his warehouse shooting wooden toys and organic stuffed animals with a rented X-ray gun, looking for lead he knew full well he wouldn't find. Even though the CPSC now says it won't require testing for another year, Wilson says he has to do it anyway. Anxious to avoid liability, the stores he sells to demand it.

"The standard hasn't gone away," he says. "My customers are still going to want certificates, or some kind of statement from us that we meet the standard."

But DIY testing doesn't satisfy the law; it only buys Wilson a little more time. By next February, when the stay of enforcement runs out, Wilson must have all his items tested by a third-party lab, at costs ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per item — costs that must be paid for by the manufacturer or importer. Since it costs just as much to test an item whether you sell 50 or 50,000 of it, Wilson's company could end up spending as much on testing as a much bigger importer.

If the law doesn't change, says Wilson, he will have to drop about 90 percent of his products — and hope he can sell all of them off before next year, or he will have to dump them in a landfill, without recouping a penny of their cost.

"I know the products that are in danger," he says. Kallisto, a line of organic animals stuffed with wool and sewn by stay-at-home mothers in Germany, will probably be one. Since Wilson is the sole importer, they'll be completely shut out of the US market.

Quincy dressmaker Kiki Fluhr could face an even more brutal choice: stop making children's clothes or give up her business altogether. Six months ago, unaware of the looming CPSIA, she began working full-time on her line of girls' dresses and quilts, All The Numbers. Fluhr sells wholesale to local boutiques, as well as on online DIY marketplace etsy.com.

Like Wilson, Fluhr is using a rented X-ray gun to test her wares. She recently found a package of vintage buttons that contained about 1600 ppm of lead, and promptly discarded them. It was a wake-up call for the dressmaker, who says she — and many other small handcrafters — would be willing to buy only supplies that were certified lead-free. But as it currently stands, the law says she must eventually begin doing third-party testing on one dress in each batch.

"I can make about 15 dresses from a bolt of fabric," she explains. "Once I get a new bolt, I have to start all over again. The way the law is written right now, I will not be able to keep my business open."

Rick Woldenberg, chairman of the Illinois-based educational company Learning Resources, is one of the leaders of the increasingly viral online movement railing against the CPSIA. On his Web site, learningresourcesinc.blogspot.com, he obsessively documents stories like Fluhr and Wilson's, in the hopes that Congress and the CPSC might be listening.

"This is only partly about our business," he says. "For me, it's more about the community I live in. That's what keeps me up till two in the morning. It just frosts me — I feel like my way of life is being hijacked."

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