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Well-meaning lawmakers hem in handicrafters

The Consumer Product Safety Commission was poised Friday to stay implementation of a law that imposes strict limits on the lead content of toys and child garments.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act passed the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives last August. The votes were all but unanimous, as protectionism combined with concern over tainted Chinese toys and jewelry made a “yea” a political no-brainer.

The result was legislation that was more heart, less brain.

The commission’s attorneys Thursday recommended its two members give an overburdened staff another year to get the new rules right. It could be a case of a stitch in time.

As things stood Friday, almost anything, and anything in anything, a child age 12 or under might come in contact with would not have been allowed to have more than 600 parts per million lead content as of Feb. 10. That would have dropped to 300 ppm as of Aug. 14.

Makers of children’s goods were to be allowed to self-test the content initially, but in August that task would have to have been handed to a third party. Testing cost estimates ranged from $75 to $1,000-plus.

Bad enough if the bonnet or top you make is priced at $20. Worse, if every component must be certified, and even the tiniest of alterations – changing button color, for example – triggers a requirement for new testing.

“It’s ridiculous,” says Betty Loosemore, who sells tiny garments and other keepsakes for events such as baptisms out of her Greenacres home. The shops and other home-based businesses that buy her goods are scared to death, she said. Some are liquidating their inventories and preparing to close. “It will put us out of business,” adds Loosemore, who says she has been anticipating retirement after 19 years running KBC Products.

She says she will stop selling two-thirds of the items she carries – KBC subcontracts the manufacturing – because of the testing requirement.

Caught off guard by legislation, the owners of tens of thousands of small businesses like KBC have bombarded the commission and their senators and representatives with complaints.

The commission early last month backed off on one of its most toxic provisions, one that would have required second-hand sellers of children’s products like Goodwill Industries to certify the stuff did not exceed the mandated lead levels.

Some congressional leaders encouraged the commission to do more. In a Jan. 16 letter, the chairmen of the House and Senate committees on commerce acknowledged the confusion created by their handiwork, and asked that additional modifications be made before Feb. 10. More clarity would help, as well, they said.

The Web is on fire with misinformation, invective and hysteria, much of it understandable given what’s at stake for the thousands of home businesses run by single women, many with children, for whom the income is an economic lifeline. The Craft Organization Directors Association says 64 percent of craftspeople work alone, almost all have fewer than five employees.

Randi Dickinson is the president of the Eastern Washington Etsy Team, Etsy being an online marketplace for handcrafted and heirloom goods.

She says she understands the new law’s objectives. But the lack of details about testing, in particular, had Etsy members anxious over costs and liability. Many, she adds, have been frustrated by the commission’s inability on its own to undo much of what Congress wrought.

Cherie Killilea, owner of StudioCherie.com, uses Etsy to sell patterns for diaper bags and changing pads, items she made herself until she could no longer keep up with orders.

Killilea says there is still time to make needed fixes in well-intentioned, if badly written legislation. “The law was not designed to put small business out of business,” she says. “There are some things that are going to be ironed out using common sense.”

Maybe so. The black helicopters may not be coming for the snaps on your kid’s onesies just yet. In its proposed Federal Register notice, the commission says a “stay will give us the time needed to develop sound rules and requirements as well as implement outreach efforts to explain these requirements …”

Hard to imagine the commission not taking this breather for itself and stressed-out crafters. But good luck if some of the responsibility gets handed back to StudioCongress. There, it’s all about stimulus. Too bad about the anti-stimulus enacted last year.

Contact Bert Caldwell at (509) 459-5450 or bertc@spokesman.com.
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