Some small toy makers not happy with new toy-safety law

Natural toys
Peapods Natural Toys and Baby Care in St. Paul sells simple wooden toys such as these miniature trucks produced by Minnesota-based DoodleTown Toys. A new law will require toymakers to pay for independent lab testing on their products for lead and other harmful chemicals.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Many of these independent businesses were the ones pushing for stronger reforms in the toy industry. But now, they say the law could have the unintended consequence of driving smaller toymakers out of business.

You probably won't find Hannah Montana dolls or SpongeBob SquarePants at Peapods Natural Toys in St. Paul. On the other hand, you can take your pick of wooden trucks or swaddling blankets made from organic cotton.

Peapods Natural Toys owner Dan Marshall
Dan Marshall, founder of the national Handmade Toy Alliance and owner of Peapods Natural Toys in St. Paul, holds a baby sling that would be subject to a new toy-safety law. Marshall supports the new standards but is fighting a provision requiring toymakers to pay for expensive lab testing of lead and other chemicals. He says the measures could put smaller toymakers out of business.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"This is a baby sling from Kangaroo Korner. It's made in Little Canada, Minnesota," said Dan Marshall, the store's owner. "It's made of polar fleece, which is essentially recycled pop bottles."

Marshall opened the store 10 years ago with his wife under a simple philosophy.

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"We wanted to provide alternatives to the cheap, plastic toys you could find at Target or Wal-Mart," Marshall said.

So, he said it's ironic that the new legislation would threaten the livelihood of toymakers and retailers who provide an alternative to the products the new law is aimed at. Marshall is also the founder of the national Handmade Toy Alliance.

Charlie Lecy tests out a toy drum
Charlie Lecy, 2, of Minneapolis, tests out a toy drum at Peapods in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"All of us support the standards in this law, 100 percent," he said. "It's the enforcement. And the way this enforcement was put together, it makes sense for large companies, which were the ones making this problem in the first place. It doesn't make sense for small-batch companies."

The Consumer Product Improvement Safety Act goes into effect in February. It'll require companies that make toys and kids' clothing to show through independent testing that their goods are virtually free of lead and other dangerous chemicals. Last year, toymakers recalled several Chinese-made products, ranging from kids' jewelry to Dora the Explorer dolls.

But critics of the law said the cost of third-party testing could drive some toymakers out of business.

Susan Berns runs Fairy Finery in Golden Valley, which makes children's dress-up clothes. Berns says she supports the controls, but not the application of the law.

"There's a possibility that would make it economically unfeasible to produce products at a price that people are able and willing to pay," Berns said.

Hearing on toy safety
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., holds up a recalled toy train while testfiying before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee on Captiol Hill September 12, 2007 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Berns said she would have to spend $100 to test each material that goes into a dress, plus additional tests for every color.

"Well, if you use eight colors of velvet, and eight colors of tulle, and eight colors of organdy, and eight colors of lining fabric ... you end up with thousands of dollars of testing," she said.

Toymakers are hoping to change how the law is implemented. For example, they want some natural products exempt from the testing. Marshall, of the Peapods store, recalled the recent experience of one St. Paul toymaker.

"They paid $500 to a lab to verify that the wooden blocks are, in fact, unfinished wooden blocks, handmade, and don't contain phthalates or lead," he said.

Marshall and others also want the Consumer Product Safety Commission to focus on testing the materials used to make the toys, such as paint and fabrics, as opposed to the more expensive process of testing the final product.

But the requests for exemptions are going too far, said Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America.

"Some of the things they're asking for would create gaping loopholes in the law," said Weitraub.

Toymakers, both big and small, need to comply with laws aimed to protect children, she said.

"The answer is not to gut the bill," she said. "What this law responds to is this major problem that was plaguing this country. That there were toys flooding our market with incredibly high levels of lead. So how do you deal with this problem? I think the bill deals with it in a well-written and rational way."

A spokesman for DFL Senator Amy Klobuchar, who supports the legislation, said Klobuchar will work with the Consumer Product Safety Commission and toymakers to come up with an appropriate way to enforce it. Klobuchar's office said new legislation may not be needed.

But the agency charged with enforcing the new law says there isn't a lot of leeway.

"The flexibility for the commission to make any changes in the law is extremely limited," said Julie Vallese, spokeswoman with the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "Because the legislation was written and passed by Congress, Congress has much more of the authority to make any technical amendments or changes if they feel there were any unintended consequences of the law, or if the law did not take into consideration certain manufacturers around the country."

And that suggests for stores like Peapods and its suppliers, there is no quick fix.