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NORD: Playing around with toy makers

Stricter lead regulations will cost jobs without making children’s products safer

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The Obama administration has recognized that excessive and unnecessarily burdensome regulation is a drag on the economy. As the administration has worked to promote job creation, it has publicized its efforts directing agencies to eliminate or revise unnecessarily burdensome and inefficient regulations. Apparently, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has not gotten the word.

The commission's failure to get the word is no more apparent than in its efforts to implement the Consumer Product Safety Improvements Act. The legislation was enacted after agency recalls of imported products illuminated the issue of import safety. The goal of the law is to assure that products intended for children are safe, a goal for which there is universal agreement. The devil, of course, is in the details, and the details of implementing this laudable statutory goal are devilish for sure.

Under the law, permissible levels of lead in children's products are to be reduced progressively over time. Children's products now must be 99.97 percent lead-free. In August, that level increases to 99.99 percent unless the agency finds that achieving that minute trace level is not technologically feasible. In an unfortunate example of politics driving science, the agency just voted along party lines, determining that there are no technological impediments to achieving that level. That decision was based on a record that is short on facts but long on speculation. Let's look at what we do and do not know.

The most important issue is public health so let's look at the risk of lead exposure. While it is a given that children should not be exposed to lead in their environment, it is also a fact that consumer products are not significant sources of lead exposure. Elevated blood lead levels dropped dramatically from the mid-1970s when lead paint and leaded gasoline were banned. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, paint in old houses and contaminated dirt and dust remain the biggest sources of lead exposure. Other sources of lead include drinking water (because of lead plumbing materials still found in some municipal water systems), certain dietary supplements, and certain kinds of pottery, ceramics and crystal. Even chocolate can have up to 10 times more lead than what we are mandating for various consumer products. Staffers at the Consumer Product Safety Commission have told us that the substantial health benefits from lowering lead in children's products already have been achieved. The agency expects that further lowering the lead limits to pick up these trace amounts will result in minimal increased health benefits.

If the health benefits of this policy are not appreciable, what about the costs of moving from a 99.97 percent to a 99.99 percent lead-free environment? Lead can be a trace contaminant in recycled plastics and metals. Therefore, our staff has advised manufacturers of children's products that they may need to avoid the use of recycled metals and plastics to meet the new level. We do not know the extent of the use of recycled materials in children's products. We do know that virgin plastic is between 50 percent and 100 percent more expensive than recycled options. Therefore, contrary to the efforts of other agencies trying to push the use of recyclables, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is pushing industry away from recyclables to more expensive materials without considering whether there is an appreciable health benefit.

With respect to metals, all of the screws, nuts, bolts and other metal hardware used in children's products will need to be 99.99 percent lead-free. We know that steel under the statutory limit, such as surgical stainless steel, is available but is substantially more expensive than general-use steel. Lead-free brass alloys will cost manufacturers at least 10 percent more than other brass alloys. Low-lead tin is available at a 10 percent to 15 percent price premium. There are, however, questions about availability and variability of these alloys. The availability of a low-lead alloy does not necessarily indicate that it is economically suitable for a particular application. There also is a concern that as we push manufacturers to use higher-cost materials, they may use less-durable materials, such as plastic substitutions for metal. This result would present its own safety issues. In addition, the costs of testing to assure compliance with the 99.99 percent lead-free limit are expected to increase significantly.

These cost increases are likely to result in a combination of price increases and reductions in the types and quantities of children's products made available to consumers. According to the excellent staff at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, some firms may reduce the selection of children's products they manufacture, some may exit the children's market altogether and some may even go out of business. The staffers note that these costs will have relatively greater consequences for smaller manufacturers and artisans who have less bargaining power and more limited production runs over which to spread testing costs.

These are not speculative costs - they are real. The bicycle industry has told us that as a result of the Consumer Product Safety Improvements Act, manufacturers have experienced a 50 percent cost increase for their product components. They have told us that 10 out of 40 manufacturers - 25 percent - have stopped producing children's bicycles and that they expect even fewer manufacturers producing youth bicycles once the new lead limit goes into effect. Some all-terrain vehicle manufacturers have responded to the lower lead limits by no longer producing youth ATVs, leaving children no option but to use the more dangerous adult ATVs. The Handmade Toy Alliance, representing small toy makers, maintains a growing list of companies that have been driven out of business by this law; the list continues to grow. This is not just some theoretical exercise - these are real people who have lost real jobs and who are being forced to pay more for products with no real safety benefit.

In brief, this drive to a pure lead-free environment with respect to children's consumer products, especially those that children cannot mouth or swallow, will not give us more appreciable public health benefits. No child has gotten lead poisoning from riding a bicycle. This effort will, however, drive up the costs of materials, drive some producers out of the market, cost jobs and reduce consumer choices. All the talk about regulatory reform, if not backed up by action, will not change these results. Leadership and a sensible regulatory policy that is mindful of the real-world consequences of government action perhaps could.

Nancy A. Nord is a member of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

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