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EDITORIAL: No more rhinestone cowboys

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 14, 2009

New regulations taking effect today make an awful new law even worse. Government is putting huge new burdens on retailers and manufacturers already reeling from a bad economy.

Treasured children's books published before 1985 already have been removed by the thousands from library shelves and second-hand stores. Also suddenly illegal are many plastics used in children's apparel (such as diapers) and toys. Rhinestones are definitely out, by specific bureaucratic edict. So are lots of children's bikes and all-terrain vehicles. Even clothing zippers are in peril.

Charities are taking it on the chin, with the Salvation Army alone estimating that it will be forced to destroy $100 million of inventory and significantly cut back some of its social services.

The culprit in all this mess is the 2008 Consumer Product Safety and Improvement Act, which went into effect in February and which today becomes even more stringent. In February, the law put a limit of 600 parts per million -- an absurdly low threshold -- of lead in any product intended for use by children. It also banned certain phthalates, which are chemicals used to soften various plastics. Today, the lead limit drops even further, to 300 parts per million.

Also beginning today, every children's product must carry a "tracking label" identifying the name, location and date of its manufacture. Compliance costs are so exorbitant that one respected manufacturer, Chairman Rick Woldenberg of Learning Resources, Inc., wrote the Consumer Product Safety Commission, "This provision alone may bankrupt companies and wipe out entire product lines, all without improving children's product safety."

Yet the law makes no distinctions between lead or phthalates that children have any likelihood of putting in their mouths and those that pose no realistic risk at all.

"Kids aren't licking the bottom of their shoes or chewing their youth-ATV battery terminals," said Quin Dodd, former chief of staff of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and a top critic of the bill. He notes that phthalates are what allow most toddlers' "booties" to have their anti-slippage qualities -- so banning them from those products is likely to cause more accidents from children's falls than it could possibly save from the risk of ingestion.

The phthalates involved probably aren't even dangerous. The Consumer Product Safety Commission itself, the U.S. Surgeon General and the federal Food and Drug Administration have determined that their actual risks are minimal or nonexistent.

Worse still is that the law actually makes violations a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Other provisions serve as open invitations to utterly speculative, jackpot-seeking lawsuits of the sort that can put even innocent companies, and their workers, out of business.

For a year, the Manhattan Institute's Walter Olson has been compiling horror stories about the Consumer Product Safety and Improvement Act at his Overlawyered blog. Those stories -- about what Mr. Olson describes as an "absolutist, not to say fanatical" law -- seem to be endless. Yet an out-of-touch Congress continues to ignore the horrible fruits of its handiwork.