Trunkloads of used children's clothing and toys at thrift and resale shops could be headed for the trash heap come Feb. 10 under a law Congress passed last year to make those products safer.
The law was written to keep lead-filled merchandise away from children. It mandates that all products for children 12 and under, including clothing, be tested for lead content and chemicals known as phthalates, which make plastic more pliable.
For all its good intentions, the new Consumer Product Safety Commission Improvement Act has needled the nation's thrift and consignment shop industry so much that some have dubbed the act's effective date "National Bankruptcy Day."
"If the law goes into effect unaltered on Feb. 10, it will be devastating to the children's resale and thrift industry," said Adele Meyer, executive director of the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops.
The law followed widespread recalls last year of products that posed a threat to children, including toys with lead or lead-based paint. It affects all manufacturers, importers and retailers, but larger stores are more equipped to comply by either paying for the tests or pushing old merchandise down the chain to resellers.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a clarification on the law earlier this month, but Meyer said it muddled the regulations even further.
The clarification said resale shops are not required to conduct lead testing, an expense that can run into thousands of dollars, but resellers cannot sell children's products that exceed the new lead limit.
"Those resellers that do sell products in violation of the new limits could face civil and/or criminal penalties," according to the clarification.
"It's a catch-22," Meyer said. "If they do not test, they don't know. How can they comply if they don't test, and they can't afford to test. You can't know the lead content by looking at them. It's ludicrous."
Under the law, children's products with more than 600 parts per million of total lead content cannot lawfully be sold in the United States on or after Feb. 10, even if they were manufactured before that date. The total lead threshold drops to 300 ppm on Aug. 14. It decreases again in 2011 to 100 ppm.
Goodwill Industries and other leading volunteer organizations such as Salvation Army, Easter Seals and Volunteers of America formed a coalition to pressure the safety commission to amend the rules to affect only products made after Feb. 10. The agency does not have the authority to change the law but can decide how to interpret it.
Kim Dulic, a public affairs specialist with the safety commission, said the agency has been bombarded with calls in recent weeks and is revisiting the law to see how it will affect small businesses.
Until further statements are issued on the new law, Dulic recommended that clothing and toy sellers pay close attention to recall lists issued by her agency for the past two years by logging on to www.cpsc.gov and typing in the name or a description of the product in question. The law makes it illegal to sell recalled products.
"On children's metal jewelry, unless I'm prepared to test it, I would stay away from it," she said.
On children's clothing, Dulic suggested checking for small parts, loose buttons or things than can pose a choking hazard.
"The recommendation is to use your best business judgment," she said. "If someone brings in a silver charm, key chain, necklace or something like that, if you do accept it, check it against the (CPSC) Web site."
She's not sure if the law will be amended before Feb. 10.
"We are trying to address all these issues while complying with the law," Dulic said. "Our number one goal is to keep children safe."
Jennifer Oldal, marketing manager for Goodwill Industries of Lower South Carolina, which has 11 outlets in the Charleston area, said her agency and others in the coalition are trying to sew up a common-sense solution.
"We are concerned that the act is being interpreted as one-size-fits-all, which will negatively affect how we will be able to help people in the community," Oldal said.
Goodwill has not determined what will happen to the 25 percent of its merchandise that falls under the new law on Feb. 10 if the law is not amended, but the agency will do its best to comply with the new regulations, Oldal said.
"Safety is one of our priorities," she said. "Our national office is pretty confident we will come to some kind of agreement."
At the Goodwill store on Folly Road, children's clothing and toys look safe, but no one knows if the metal buttons and fasteners on clothing or painted toys are harmful.
Assistant manager Johanna Garner is waiting for clear direction from Washington before the thrift shop takes any action.
At Closet Treasures, also on Folly Road, an outreach center for James Island Presbyterian Church that uses its sale proceeds to pay for scholarships and mission trips, they fear they will no longer be able to help poor people with clothing donations.
"Part of our ministry is to provide assistance to persons of limited income," said Henry Meeuwse, associate pastor for outreach ministries. "We give away thousands of items to itinerant children on Johns Island. That will have to stop. It's an unfortunate consequence but for liability purposes, we will comply with the law. Who is going to take the risk?"
The law gives enforcement to the Consumer Product Safety Commission as well as attorney generals in each state.
Mark Plowden, communications director for the state attorney general's office, said the office would use the law to bar distribution of a potentially harmful product by a major retailer but it would not be going into businesses looking for violations.
"The law does not create the lead police out of the state attorney general's office," he said. "We don't have an army of investigators to go out to (determine) the lead content."
The new law, called the Consumer Product Safety Commission Improvement Act, takes effect: Feb. 10WHO'S AFFECTED: Manufacturers, importers, retailers and resellers of children's clothing and toys.WHY: Congress passed a law last August that limits the amount of lead in children's clothing and toys to 600 parts per million. The amount decreases further in August and then again in 2011.ENFORCEMENT: The Consumer Product Safety Commission and each state's attorney general are empowered to enforce the law.PENALTIES: To be determined by final regulations set by the commission but could range from fines up to several thousand dollars and forfeiture of materials to imprisonment of up to five years for willful violators.MORE INFO: cpsc.gov.