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Getting lead out of children's items threatens to wipe out small shops

Darwin Eckert of Bella’s Boutique in St. Petersburg cleans a toy Monday. After Feb. 10 all must have proof they were tested for lead.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Darwin Eckert of Bella’s Boutique in St. Petersburg cleans a toy Monday. After Feb. 10 all must have proof they were tested for lead.

Lori Hammil and Darwin Eckert stock their children's resale shop with brand-name clothes, colorful toys, high chairs and strollers.

But come Feb. 10, they won't be able to sell most of it. That's when a federal law requires they begin testing for lead.

"We won't even be able to throw it in the Dumpster because it could be considered toxic," said Hammil, 32, as she worked feverishly at her St. Petersburg shop, Bella's Boutique, to get everything out on the floor this week.

The law, which would affect manufacturers, retailers, consignment stores and thrift shops around the country, was supposed to thwart the influx of lead-laced children's toys from China. In 2007, more than 6-million toys were recalled because of lead.

But U.S. Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis, who voted for the law, asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission on Wednesday to see if there is a way to reduce the impact on second-hand stores and nonprofits.

"Nobody knew we'd have these consequences," Bilirakis said in a phone interview from Washington.

On Wednesday, the Consumer Product Safety Commission tentatively approved some exemptions, including electronics and items made of natural fibers like cotton and wood. It also is exploring whether the law allows for any flexibility when it comes to small businesses, said agency spokesperson Julie Vallese.

But for now, the agency's stance is that after Feb. 10, all items designed for children 12 and younger must have proof that they were tested for lead.

The cost of lead tests can range from less than $100 to thousands of dollars, depending on the complexity of the item. The owner of a learning company, for example, got a quote for $24,050 to test a single telescope for kids.

For Hammil, who helped open the consignment shop three months ago, that means only one thing: It's time to get out of business.

• • •

On Web sites and blogs around the country, those who manufacture or sell children's items are calling Feb. 10 National Bankruptcy Day.

The law requires both new and used items to have certification that they contain less than 600 parts per million of lead. Lead exposure can cause brain and nervous system damage, behavioral and learning problems, among other things, in children. After August, that amount drops to 300 parts per million in total lead content and 90 parts per million in paint.

And it's not limited to toys.

To sell a pair of polyester pants with an applique, the buttons, zipper and applique would need to be tested. A Mr. Potato Head toy would have to be examined not only for lead and phthalates, which are chemicals in plastics, but to make sure the small parts aren't likely to make a child choke.

With so many requirements, nonprofits like Goodwill Industries are trying to figure out how to comply, and many small-business owners are confused.

"Is a diaper changing mat affected by the new amendment?" asks one woman on a Web site that tries to explain the law.

"I'm questioning the same thing about the ring bearer pillows I make," another says.

Carol Vaporis, owner of Duck Duck Goose Consignment, said she has stopped accepting children's items at her New Port Richey store. "I won't sell in violation of the law," said Vaporis. "But I'm going to fight it with every breath."

Mindy Socher, owner of the consignment shop Baby Boomerang in Tampa, hadn't even heard of the new law.

"I guess I'm not even taking it serious because it sounds insane," said Socher, who has been in business 18 years.

Hammil and Eckert, who say the business they started a few months ago sold $3,000 in used children's goods in November, plan to have a fire sale Jan. 31.

Then Hammil will walk away. Eckert, a 46-year-old single father, will keep it open and sell maternity clothes.

Both wondered how the government planned to enforce the law, which carries criminal and civil penalties, including fines up to millions of dollars.

Will garage sales be affected?

"I think it's important to understand that the Consumer Product Safety Commission is a small agency and the first place we would go would not be the neighborhood yard sale," said Vallese, the CPSC spokesperson. "But this is not a law that retailers and manufacturers should roll the dice on in the off chance they might not get caught. They have an obligation and responsibility to meet the law."

Still, she acknowledged the agency is trying to figure out how to enforce the law with limited resources.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which used information from Times wires. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

About the law

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which passed 424 to 1 (only Ron Paul opposed it) says that after Feb. 10, any item designed for a child 12 and younger must be tested to make sure it has less than 600 parts per million of total lead. After Aug. 14, that amount is 300 parts per million of total lead content and 90 parts per million on lead paint.

• Toys and other children's products must also be tested for phthalates, a chemical found in plastics, and to make sure that they don't violate a small parts rule designed to protect against choking.

• Exemptions that were tentatively approved Wednesday: natural fibers like wood and cotton, electronics and items where the lead is inaccessible to the child.

•For more information, go to www.cpsc.gov.

Exposing hidden lead

Read our special report on lead, the omnipresent poison, at links.tampabay.com.

Getting lead out of children's items threatens to wipe out small shops 01/07/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 6:06pm]

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