Does lead law go too far? Motorsports retailers feeling effects

Mike Maslanik

What do second-hand children’s clothes, kids’ dirt bikes and library books have in common? They’re all lumped together in a bill banning the sale of products that might contain trace amounts of lead.

The law, the Consumer Safety Improvement Act of 2008, went into effect last month. Early on, it raised concerns among second-hand and thrift store owners, but as time passed it has become clear that many other products marketed to kids are affected, too.

“It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it,” said Marie Colf, office manager at Canandaigua Motorsports in Canandaigua, N.Y. “It’s not like kids are licking kickstands or something.”

When the law went into effect on Feb. 10, Canandaigua Motorsports was forced to pull about $40,000 worth of merchandise from its showroom and lock it up in storage, Colf said. The retailer is barred from selling any youth model vehicles, and even parts for existing models are off-limits.

ATV dealers were caught off-guard by the law, Colf said, because they never thought some of their merchandise contained lead.

Colf said it’s too early to know how the law has affected sales, adding that the impact will be hard to measure.

“A lot of times, a guy will come in to buy something for his kid and decides that he wants to get something for himself, too,” she said. “I think there will be a lot of effects that we don’t see.”

Ted Filer, owner of Filer’s Power Sports in Macedon, N.Y., had to pull about $14,000 worth of merchandise from his store. He said he has trouble understanding the logic behind the ban. While he supports reducing the lead content of children’s clothes and bedding, the vehicle ban does not make any sense to him.

“Being a parent to four kids, I’ve got a garage full of bikes at home,” he said. “If a kid is going to chew on a brake lever, he can just go over to one that was build for adults.”

Filer sees the ban harming the industry now and in the future. Sales of youth products have fallen through the floor since the ban went into effect and he worries about the long-term implications.

“If a kid doesn’t get into this when they’re younger, they might develop other interests,” Filer said.

Beyond the financial implications for store owners, some parents and motor sports enthusiasts see the law itself as a safety concern.

Darrin Smith, 45, of Canandaigua, said he has been unable to find parts for his 11-year-old son’s Can-Am four-wheeler.

“If I can’t get the parts for it, then I can’t keep him safe,” Smith said, adding that the only other option is letting his son ride a vehicle that is too big for him.

The bike is only a few years old and still serviceable, but it will soon need routine maintenance to remain safe to ride. Smith has even tried to buy parts in Canada, but he was surprised to find that bike shops across the border stopped selling them, too.

Safety concerns

Last year, Congress passed the Consumer Safety Improvement Act in the wake of scares about lead content in children’s toys and clothing, mainly in products imported from China.

The law prohibits products intended for children 12 years and younger from containing certain amounts of lead and phthalate — substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility — from being sold in the United States.

Lead content guidelines will be phased in over several years. As of Feb. 10, all children’s products sold must contain no more than 600 parts per million of lead. By Aug. 1 of this year, that amount drops to 300 parts per million; and it goes down to 100 parts per million in 2011.

Retailers caught selling banned products can potentially be fined up to $10,000 per item sold.

Some of the items are obvious, like toys or buttons that children can put into their mouths, but the guidelines also include things like kickstands and brake levers that hardly look like tasty snacks.

While some consider the law too broadly defined and heavy-handed, environmental health experts warn that lead exposure is still a serious risk for children.

Katrina Korfmacher, an assistant professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester, said deaths related to “casual exposure to products with lead is not well-documented.” Instead, most of the danger associated with lead poisoning comes from living in older homes, she said.

Still, products containing lead can kill children, she said, noting that the last child to die of lead poisoning, in 2006, was killed by swallowing a metal charm containing a high level of the substance.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children who ingest large amounts of lead, most commonly by eating lead paint chips or chewing toys containing lead, can develop blood anemia, muscle weakness and brain damage. Even low levels of lead exposure can affect mental and physical development.

Bucking the trend

But not all industries are suffering because of the bill.

“We haven’t been affected by it at all, because most of our product is lead-free,” said Victor Gaspar, owner of Trailblazers Bike and Sport Shop in Victor, N.Y.

Most quality bicycles are made using an aluminum and steel alloy and decorated with paint containing no lead, Gaspar said. But, he said, secondary “doodads” like horns and bells might have contained lead.

Gaspar said the bicycle industry starting preparing for the legislation months in advance and has since phased out any products containing lead.

Likewise, retail giant Target initiated a massive recall of all products that could potentially contain lead in the weeks leading up to when the law took effect, said Shannon Ligammari, manager of the Target store in Victor.

“We had hundreds of voluntary recalls of items that we either knew weren’t up to standard or couldn’t guarantee,” Ligammari said.

By now, stores have completely replenished the stock lost to the recall, she said.

Fighting back

Thrift store and second-hand shop owners were among the first to raise the alarm over the law, and are part of a vocal, multi-pronged effort to have the law amended or repealed.

Libraries also stand to be affected, but the American Library Association, a national trade group, was able to persuade lawmakers to grant them a one-year extension. Jennifer Morris, executive director of the Pioneer Library System in upstate New York, hopes that Congress will make libraries exempt for good.

“Hopefully, common sense will prevail,” Morris said.

Without the one-year exemption, libraries would have had to test every book in their children’s and young adult collections for lead content, she said. Most of the books don’t contain lead, Morris said, except for books printed during a short period of time when ink contained a small amount of lead.

Since young adult books generally make up between one-third to half of a library’s total collection, Morris said that would make for “a lot of wasted time and resources.” The 42 Pioneer Library System member libraries hold about 358,000 books for children and young adults, she said.

The Motorcycle Industry Council, a trade group that represents motor vehicle makers and retailers, is mobilizing stores and riders to write to their local representative, urging them to support measures to exempt the bikes.

There is a glimmer of hope for retailers affected by the ban. Earlier this month, a Texas congressman introduced legislation aimed at exempting all terrain vehicles, motorcycles and snowmobiles from the law.

The provision, offered by Rep. Michael Burgess, a Democrat, said Congress “acted swiftly last year to pass legislation in good faith” but the law has been “too broadly interpreted” to include youth models of the vehicles.

“This legislation would fix what I believe is an unintended punishment,” Burgess said in a news release issued by his office.

The bill — co-sponsored by Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Montana; Rep. Michael K. Simpson, R-Idaho; and Rep.  Earl D. Pomeroy, D-North Dakota — is currently in committee.

Retailers hope this latest legislative push will help youngsters get back behind the handle bars of new ATVs.

“It was like them saying, ‘This child has diabetes, so let’s take all the candy bars from all children,’” Colf said. “It doesn’t seem like a whole lot of thought went into this law.”

Daily Messenger

On the Web

For more information on the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act and opposition to some of its provisions, visit the following Web sites: The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission site includes links to the bill. The Motorcycle Industry Council, a trade group pushing for an exemption for youth bikes and all terrain vehicles, has instructions for sending form letters to members of Congress. The National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops, a trade group advocating for an exemption for second-hand stores, has a survey to collect information on the financial impact of the law.