New restrictions on the sale of toys and other children's products that contain phthalates and lead go into effect today nationwide, but toy purveyors and parents alike may be confused by a flurry of recent government and court decisions that exempt some retailers and categories of products from certain provisions of the law.
The law, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, was passed in response the wave of recalls involving toxic toys, jewelry and other children's products in 2007 and 2008. While those recalls involved mainly products with toxic lead that exceeded federal guidelines, the episode opened a window on a long-running complaint by consumer and environmental advocates that even those rules allowed too much lead. The law also tightened restrictions on the use of phthalates, a class of chemicals widely used not only in the PVC plastics in children's products, but in fragrances, cosmetics and personal care products, and plastics in a wide range of other consumer products. While the dangers of lead are well known -- even small doses can lead to permanent brain damage -- research into the effects of phthalates is younger, but no less worrisome: Studies increasingly point to developmental and reproductive effects from the chemicals' similarity to human hormones.
The new law targets lead in products designed for children under the age of 12, and phthalates in products designed for children under the age of 3.
Subsequent to the law's passage, the Consumer Product Safety Commission had given retailers and toy manufacturers a reprieve on complying with some of the testing provisions. They were also initially told they could sell older toys that did not meet the new standards, so long as newly manufactured toys meet the new standards. That reprieve was struck down last week, after a legal challenge by environmental groups.
As the San Francisco Chronicle writes, that leaves toymakers, retailers and parents in a quandary: "While businesses are barred from selling illegal products after today, it is not clear how retailers will know what's in the products without industry testing." As the Chronicle points out, the enforcement of the law will likely fall on states attorneys-general, so watch for announcements from your state officials as testing continues. Undoubtedly, the same consumer protection watchdogs that identified widespread problems with lead in the first place will also release independent testing results in time.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission also exempted several product categories from the law (as described by the Los Angeles Times:
The bottom line: Parents can't, immediately, be sure the children's products on the shelves comply with the new safety standards ... and we should expect a new flurry of recalls in the coming months, as independent and state-level testing identifies products that fail to meet the new requirements.
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