CPSC Approves Lower Lead Limit for Children's Products, but Divided Commission Faces Hurdles

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recently adopted a new standard that reduces the amount of lead allowed in children's products, providing a clear health benefit to American families. In voting July 13 to implement the lowest limit prescribed by statute, the 3-2 majority drew hostile objections from minority members. Such clashes are familiar to CPSC and could have implications for product safety in the future.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), enacted in 2008 in response to the recall of millions of toys and products, set new limits for the total lead content in children's products. The CPSIA required the commission to decrease the maximum amount of lead in children's products in phases between February 2009 and August 2011. By statute, the CPSC is required to lower the lead content limit to 100 parts per million (ppm) unless the commission determines that the limit is not technologically feasible. Beginning Aug. 14, manufacturers, importers, retailers, and distributors of products designed or intended primarily for children 12 and younger must comply with the new limit. The commission agreed, however, to hold off enforcing a third-party testing requirement for total lead content until the end of 2011.

Decades of research has shown that ingestion of lead, even at extremely low levels, can cause severe developmental delays in children, especially those under the age of six, as well as myriad other health problems. In 2006 and 2007, a rash of lead-contaminated toys and jewelry designed for children plagued the marketplace, prompting multiple product recalls.

Commissioners Nancy Nord and Anne Northup opposed the lower limit, but Chairman Inez Tenenbaum declared the CPSIA orders the CPSC to implement the lower limit if the statutory definition of technological feasibility is satisfied. Staff research identified products in the marketplace that are already in compliance with the 100 ppm limit, demonstrating that technologies and strategies exist to help manufacturers achieve the standard.

Tenenbaum commended the commission for fulfilling its statutory duty and protecting children from lead exposure. Because of the lower lead limit and "other protective provisions of the CPSIA," she said, "parents can have confidence that we should not have a repeat of the leaded toy scares of years past."

Though the commission was successful in developing the new lead standard, CPSC commissioners have struggled to carry out Congress's mandates, often citing problems with the underlying legislation. The Democratic commissioners have shown support for legislation that would provide more flexibility to the CPSC, such as allowing existing products to stay on the market past the August effective date. They emphasize, however, that such amendments must not override the mandate to significantly and adequately limit child lead exposure. Meanwhile, Nord and Northup, both highly critical of the CPSIA, continue to push an agenda that includes legislatively lowering the age range for determining what constitutes children's products and eliminating third-party testing and certification requirements in many cases.

Although the CPSC is making progress in executing the requirements of the CPSIA, future implementation of the law remains uncertain. The debate over allowing exemptions and enforcement stays for products or product categories will continue. Some of the commission's own members echo sentiments of the anti-regulatory community, focusing exclusively on the costs of regulations while ignoring or downplaying their health, safety, and quality-of-life benefits. In addition, funding cuts and legislation aimed at "fixing" the CPSIA could significantly impact the commission's authority and ability to act.

Product safety advocates assert that any changes to the CPSIA should not weaken CPSC's role in protecting families from dangerous products. Clear authority to develop such safeguards is necessary to prevent faulty cribs, toxic toys, and other hazardous items from reaching consumers.

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