New toy safety rules lead to confusion

Consumer groups say conflicting guidelines on safety and testing won't allay parents' concerns.

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By Parija B. Kavilanz, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- A year after millions of toys and other children's products were recalled over lead concerns, advocacy groups say the government's efforts to enforce stricter safety laws is causing more confusion for parents about what is safe to buy.

"The CPSC [Consumer Product Safety Commission] has created a nightmare situation for parents," said Alison Rhodes, a child safety expert and founder of Safetymom.com.

"The new [safety] guidelines are completely confusing for parents," she said.

Under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) signed into law last August, makers and sellers of children's products such as toys, clothing and books have until Feb. 10 to comply with stricter standards for permissible lead, phthalates content limits and other mandatory safety requirements.

More than 11 million toys sold in the U.S. were recalled in 2007 for lead safety concerns, with another 5 million toys recalled in 2008 for unsafe levels of lead content either in the product or the surface paint of the product.

Another component of the act requires mandatory third-party testing and certification of children's products to prove that merchandise complies with the new standards.

Last Friday, the CPSC delayed the third-party testing and certification requirement by a year, giving companies a new deadline of Feb, 10, 2010.

According to the CPSC's statement, makers of children's products will not need to test or certify their products to meet the new requirements for at least one more year. But they still need to "meet the lead and phthalates limits, mandatory toy standards and other requirements" by next week's deadline.

Rhodes and others said this new action from the CPSC "doesn't make sense."

"On the one hand, you're saying companies have to meet the stricter standards but they don't have to test [products] to ensure that products meet these standards," Rhodes said. "How are parents supposed to know what is safe if it hasn't been tested?"

David Arkush, director of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen's Congress Watch, cautioned that some businesses might seize the apparent confusion and not move quickly to comply with the new standards.

"If they do, it's at their own risk," Arkush said. "Most retailers are worried about declining sales in this economy. They could lose even more sales."

More risks: Shortage of products, layoffs

The National Retail Federation (NRF), the largest trade group for the retailers, maintains that the CPSC's ruling to delay testing has "left its members in a state of confusion."

"There are billions of dollars of children's products sitting on [store] shelves," said Craig Shearman, vice president for government affairs with the NRF. "If they decide not to pull products for testing, there's a fear of liability if a product did not meet next week's compliance deadline."

Shearman said the stay on testing doesn't preempt a consumer rights group or state attorney general from doing their own random testing on products sold in stores.

If those products are found to violate the new safety standards, then merchants and manufacturer are likely to incur serious penalties under CPSIA.

Shearman said the most "conservative" estimate of the impact of next week's deadline is that retailers will remove a lot of product from shelves by Tuesday, and much of it will be destroyed.

"This could leave plenty of store shelves bare as of Tuesday," he said.

"Health and safety of children is the No. 1 concern for retailers, but Congress clearly didn't give CPSC enough time to develop the rules and regulations to implement the new standards," Shearman said.

Other industry groups feared worse consequences for their members. "How do you know that you conform to the new standard if you don't test it," said Carter Keithley, president of the Toy Industry Association (TIA).

He said the fact that the new lead standard regulations apply to all toys on the market on Feb. 10 - regardless of when they were made - could be a serious problem for smaller specialty stores.

"Larger retailers turn over their inventory frequently. Smaller merchants still have products that are two or three years old," Keithey said. "They will have to take these products off the market."

National Association of Manufacturers' spokesman Rosario Palmieri said the testing delay offers no relief to its members.

"Retailers are still telling us that we have to meet the new standards and prove it through certification," Palmieri said. "In some cases, if you can't get the proof, retailers will send the product back and it will be destroyed.

Trade groups said the additional cost of retesting products to meet new standards could bankrupt smaller vendors that are already struggling in a recession.

"In the apparel industry, as many as 3,000 jobs could be lost as a result of this," Palmieri said.

The CPSC said it is simply trying to abide by the regulation passed by Congress.

"The way the legislation is written, our hands are tightly tied," said Joe Martyak, CPSC chief of staff and acting director.

On the decision to delay third-party testing, Martyak said the CPSC felt it wasn't given enough time or resources after the law was passed last August to define testing rules and procedures, and accredit labs.

"We feel we've created a realistic timetable," he said. "We are desperately trying to get the job done that's asked by Congress."  To top of page

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