Lead law: Will Tuesday launch a black market in kids' clothes?

Your kids' books with the hologram covers, your girls' boot-cut jeans with fake crystal details, all your children's toys, every single thing with a snap, are about to become contraband. As the new Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act, the CPSIA, goes into effect on Tuesday, February 10 -- in just four days -- despite newly vague statements that retailers won't be required to test products for lead until February 2010, many thrift stores are considering closing shop.

That the law is a good thing in concept is universally agreed-upon. None of us want our children wearing clothes that contain high levels of lead, or ingesting lead do-hickeys from their sparkly toys, or happening to chew on a kids' book that's contaminated. But that the law is wrong-headed in practice and has been administered with a shameful lack of competence on the part of CPSC Chairwoman Nancy Nord. The bill's original sponsors have called upon Nord to step down.

Under the current rules, nothing works. Thrift stores and consignment shops don't have to test for lead; but will still be subject to enormous fines and the potential for prosecution if they sell a contaminated product. Small manufacturers still can't afford the testing requirements for natural products, like cloth diapers and hand-carved toys, no matter if the requirements go into effect Tuesday or a year from Tuesday. Used books can't be sold by libraries to raise money.

To address many of these problems, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint will be introducing an amendment to the bill which would exempt resellers from all parts of the act, stop the portion of the CPSIA that makes testing requirements retroactive, and allow manufacturers to use the certification obtained by component suppliers (for instance, fabric and snap manufacturers' testing could serve as certification for cloth diaper makers). His amendment would also delay the bill's implementation six months.

Retailers, manufacturers, and consumers who prefer to buy their children's products used are throwing up their arms in distress, and many consumers, such as Cathleen Lawrence, who spoke in this piece on NPR this morning, are suggesting we might just have to begin buying and selling used children's clothing, books and toys in secret underground societies, flying under the CPSC's radar. Will Tuesday launch a black market in thrifted and handmade children's toys, diapers and clothes, bicycles, skateboards, and imported hand-crafted goodies? The next four days are sure to be full of even more wringing-of-hands and uncertainty as we wait to see what the Senate and the CPSC will decide.

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