Adventures in Ethics and Science

Remember the scares around December 2007 about lead in children’s toys manufactured in China? Back then, people cried out for better testing to ensure that products intended for children were actually safe for children. Partly in response to this outcry, a new law, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, was passed. The intent of the law is to protect kids from harm from lead (and other substances) in children’s products. However, the effect of the law may be something else altogether.

I’ve been meaning to post on this for awhile, but I’ve finally been spurred into action by my friend Heddi at the Educational Resource Center of Santa Cruz. Here’s how Heddi explained the situation in an email to me:

In August of 2008 Bush signed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act which sets strong limits on lead in toys and all other children’s items (when read from the broadest perspective). Beginning February 10th, one toy out of each lot of toys/books/clothes manufactured by ANY TOYMAKER must be tested for lead by a third party and every toy must carry certification that this has occurred. Third party testing is expected to cost hundreds to thousands of dollars PER ITEM.

Unfortunately, the legislation is written so that only large manufacturers can survive. Even if your handmade items are made with materials that are benign like wood or use only previously manufactured and tested items like textiles and paint, one item from each lot must be tested. One of a kind toy and children’s clothing makers would be out of business or face $100,000 fines. We do want to protect children, but this is not the way!

To put the cost of the required testing into context, one small maker of children’s apparel considered a single item:

I solicited a lab quote. I was told it was $75 to test for lead per garment component and each substrate. Coated or painted items such as buttons are $100. So my Little Red Riding Hood Shirt, a 100% cotton knit shirt with an appliqué made from 7 cotton fabrics and 2 buttons eyes would cost $625 to test for lead. Flammability testing is also required and is either $50 for a certificate per component stating it meets weight code or $100 for actual testing. So add another $400-$800 for a grand total of $1,025-$1425 in testing costs for a shirt that retails for $40. If the shirt is offered in another colorway, the same testing is required despite the fact that the same fabrics are used throughout.

Small manufacturers have no way of absorbing the price of such redundancy. And all manufacturers will be required to test a finished component/item from each batch. Easy to do in mass production–simply pull one sample from a lot of thousands. But how does one comply when your “batches” are made-to-order batches of one? SKUs will also be required for each product with a permanent label on the item itself.

Passing these costs on to the consumer — especially given the current state of the economy — is a quick path to having no buyers. And how many cases have there been of lead poisoning from cotton T-shirts? I’m no law-maker, but it seems like there must be a better way to achieve the intent of the law — protecting kids from harm — without creating these burdens.

Among the people who have decried the foreseeable effects of the CPSIA as it currently stands are makers and consumers of handmade toys and apparel, but they are not the only ones who will be affected. CPSIA will also matter:

To the Parents of Young Students:
Due to the new law, expect to see the cost of school supplies sky rocket. While those paper clips weren’t originally intended for your student to use, they will need to be tested now that your 11-year-old needs them for his school project. This law applies to any and all school supplies (textbooks, pencils, crayons, paper, etc.) being used by children under 12.

To the Avid Reader:
Due to the new law, all children’s books will be pulled from library and school shelves, as there is no exemption for them. That’s okay though, there’s always television. Our children don’t need to learn the love of reading after all.
Article from the American Library Association

To the Environmentalist:
Due to the new law, all items in non-compliance will now be dumped into our already overflowing landfills. Imagine not just products from the small business owners, but the Big Box Stores as well. You can’t sell it so you must toss it. Or be potentially sued for selling it. You can’t even give them away. If you are caught, it is still a violation. …

To the Antique Toy Collector:
Due to the new law, you’d better start buying now because it’s all going to private collection and will no longer be available to purchase. “Because the new rules apply retroactively, toys and clothes already on the shelf will have to be thrown out if they aren’t certified as safe.”

To the American Economy:
Already struggling under an economy that hasn’t been this weak in decades, the American economy will be hit harder with the inevitable loss of jobs and revenues from suppliers, small businesses and consumers. The required testing is far too costly and restrictive for small businesses or individuals to undertake.

To the Global Economy:
Due to this new law, many foreign manufacturers have already pulled out of the US market. You can imagine the impact of this on their businesses.

Click here for a recent article from Forbes.

Something for almost everyone, it seems.

Take, for instance, the microscope in the elementary school (whose students are nearly all 12 and under). If the manufacturer tests each component of the microscope (one per lot, as is required), the solder in the light bulb puts the lead level over the CPSIA threshold. This means the manufacturer can legally sell schools the microscope, but not the light source. Our kids will avoid the damaging effects of lead on their brain, but those brains will not get to partake of hands-on science. (Indeed, I submit to you that if a child were to ingest a microscope light bulb, lead poisoning would not be at the top of the list of expected injuries.)

Keeping kids safe is important, and we have a collective obligation to do so. But there are plausible ways to live up to this obligation and stupid ways. Our legislators ought to be able to make some laws that make sense, that consider what kinds of materials can be expected to cause actual harm to children and focus on those. As Rick Woldenberg points out:

What exactly happened in 2007? The lead-related recalls related to LEAD-IN-PAINT, not lead in substrates. [In addition, there was one tort involving one piece of lead jewelry.] Lead-in-paint has been illegal for decades. I hate to be a killjoy, but this means that the problem in 2007 was compliance with law, not the strictness of the rules. This is a behavioral issue, not a restrictions issue, and requires a thoughtful solution tailored to the nature of the problem (lack of compliance). By extending the law well beyond the known safety issue (lead-in-paint) to a laundry list of imaginary risks not associated with actual injuries, we end up arguing about whether cloth dolls, culturally-authentic clothing, microscope bulbs and Harry Potter books present a lead danger. If we are going to pay to prevent safety “risks” of that microscopic magnitude, why stop there? If children’s products up to age 12 are such a serious (and undefined) lead safety issue, why aren’t dog toys? Why aren’t products for adults? What about industrial products? What about products we put on spaceships?

OK, what can we do? Boutique Café suggests, among other things:

1) Email or call the CPSIA – the office of the CPSC ombudsman 888-531-9070.
Comments on Component Parts Testing accepted through January 30, 2009.

2) Email or snail mail your representatives.

3) Call your representatives. For their contact information just enter your zip code.

5) Sign the petition.

I seem to recall a speech not too long ago that called for science to return to its rightful place in governance, legislation, and public life. Maybe this means we ought to be taking seriously what the data actually show about products that present a non-negligible risk to kids. Proceeding with caution isn’t a bad idea, but good intentions can be informed by a bit more reality.


  1. #1 jay
    January 28, 2009

    There is a perception that the main objectors to increased regulation are the ‘big corporations’. In reality it often is not the case. Increased regulatory and licensing hurdles often serve to prevent new entities from getting a foothold. The established companies have the resources.

    I work for a (happily fairly ethical) multinational corporation whose products are in the increasingly regulated areas of Europe and Asia. Every new requirement knocks out competition while my employer has the resources to throw teams of engineers on a project to meet the new regs.

  2. #2 Super Sally
    January 29, 2009

    And then there are the local agencies charged with providing safe drinking water for children and adults who unwittingly increased the lead in the DC water in 2003-04 and then inhibited action to determine actual damage and remedy the situation quickly.

    A new study is being published that identifies greater harm than officials have admitted, as reported 1/26/09 in the Washington Post:

    On the toys, etc. failure to enforce current laws seems to be the real culprit here. Some how “free trade” policies have to be harmonized with the responsibility of all selling goods in the US to know and abide by regulations “on the books”. Enforcement of those regs is the only way to make it happen.

    To drive on our streets you must have passed a test on the laws and demonstrate driving ability to be licensed. A driver not following those laws is subject to arrest.

    Is this not true for those who export goods to us?

  3. #3 Chris MacDonald
    February 1, 2009

    Great blog posting. This sounds like lousy legislation.

    But, just for the sake of argument, if the economies-of-scale and sophisticated supply-chain tracking of big corporations were the only way to truly keep kids safe, it would be worth it, right? I mean, hypothetically. It seems to me that we may have to admit that there are some things that big corporations are going to be better at. (A simple hypothetical example: in the absence of any health & safety legislation, only biggish companies are going to have the resources to hire someone with the technical qualifications to verify the safety of key ingredients/components, etc.)

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