Independent Labs Test Positive For Profits

Technician scans a doll with an XRF gun i i

hide captionSenior scientist Keith Sellers uses a special X-ray gun to scan a small pink doll for lead at Trace Laboratories in Hunt Valley, Md.

Jenny Gold/NPR
Technician scans a doll with an XRF gun

Senior scientist Keith Sellers uses a special X-ray gun to scan a small pink doll for lead at Trace Laboratories in Hunt Valley, Md.

Jenny Gold/NPR

It's not often that businesses find government regulations profitable. But independent testing labs are taking advantage of the rule of the law to stay afloat in these tough economic times.

These labs help manufacturers ensure that products meet all federal requirements, testing everything from water to circuit boards to toys. Despite the downturn, some labs are seeing business increase, in part because of new legislation that requires manufacturers and sellers to prove their products are safe.

A Smart Career Move

With his shaved head and wireless frames, Gaylon Morris looks a little hip for the office park outside Baltimore where he works. He has a liberal arts degree in history, but after college he switched gears and joined the Navy, working as a nuclear power plant operator.

After the Navy, Morris was looking for something different and became intrigued by the complexities of product-safety regulation.

"Between the FCC certifications and FDA certifications and all the different regulatory agencies in the world that look at things, the average consumer has no idea. It's all behind the scenes," he explains.

So he joined a lab as an electronics technician. Now in his mid-30s, Morris is the general manager of Trace Laboratories, a certified independent testing lab in Hunt Valley, Md. Trace is part of a small chain, with other labs in Illinois and Shanghai.

For the past few years, Trace has mostly been testing chemical levels in drinking water and looking for faults in electric circuitry. But Morris says the company is adapting to meet the needs of a new client: toymakers. A new federal law called the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act requires the makers and distributors of children's toys, books and clothing to test every model they sell for lead and phthalates.

Men And Their Toys

To find out how the tests work, I brought a few toys of my own to the Trace lab, which looks like a high-tech version of a high school chemistry classroom. Beakers, pipettes, flasks and crucibles line the shelves.

Morris and four other technicians in white lab coats (all men) gather around my toys. Senior scientist Keith Sellers approaches with a black box that looks like the sort of thing James Bond would use to carry nuclear secrets. From inside, he pulls out a plastic tool that resembles a hot glue gun or something out of Star Trek.

The technicians are not messing around; the gun contains a very high-voltage X-ray tube, which is why it's kept in a locked box in a locked room and requires a password to turn on. It's also worth about $35,000.

Sellers grabs a pink doll, takes aim and pulls the trigger. Within about a minute, he can have a good idea of how much lead is in the doll.

The gun basically bombards the doll with a powerful X-ray beam, exciting the electrons inside. When excited, the electrons emit energy back out at a particular wavelength. The gun analyzes the intensity of all of the energy at that wavelength to determine exactly how much of a regulated chemical like lead is present.

The gun is accurate to about 10 percent, which gives the technicians a good idea of what parts of the toy to focus on for the rest of the testing process.

The technicians are precise and serious about their work, but they're not above goofing around. But instead of playing with these toys, the technicians get a kick out of breaking them apart into tiny pieces for the next stage of testing.

How To Test A Plastic Horse

Technical Director Steve Keller seems to relish chopping the hoof off of a small plastic horse. "We get to break 'em, smash 'em, grind 'em up. That's always fun, too," he explains.

The technicians take those tiny pieces, weigh them carefully, throw in some acid, and pop them in a special microwave. The goal here is to turn the solid toys into liquid. One hour later, they're left with liquid horse hoof.

Now they're ready for the final analysis in the ICP, a carefully calibrated machine about the size of a mini-fridge. They hook up the beaker, and the liquid hoof is slowly pumped up into the machine.

Like the XRF gun, the ICP excites the electrons in the sample and then analyzes the energy they emit. But this time it's a lot more accurate than the quick scan — good enough to satisfy the toymakers and the government.

The total cost for my testing horse is about $250. And the tests show that my horse, along with the rest of my toys, have lead levels far below the federal requirement.

A Mixed Business Blessing

For Trace Laboratories, the new requirement for toy testing has been a boon for business.

"It is amazing how many people contact us," Morris says. "In the time we've been sitting here talking, I've had four different contacts of people looking for either phthalates or lead or some other metal in a toy or children's product."

But Trace's new toy-testing bonanza has come at a cost to toymakers, who aren't happy about having to pay to test every model of toy they sell. For them, $250 for a single horse adds up quickly.

Jamie Seeley Kreisman is one of the owners and managers of a small toy company called Beka Inc. in St. Paul, Minn.

Kreisman started Beka in 1973, mostly making wooden toys such as blocks and train sets. He says Beka toys have always been made with a low lead content, but now the company has to pay to prove it.

When you add up all those tests — every color of block, every model of pull-toy — it comes to an extra $30,000 a year. "For us, that's very likely going to be the difference between being profitable and not being profitable," he says, especially in a recession year when sales are already down.

But even worse is the possibility of a $100,000 fine if his company doesn't comply. Kreisman says just one misstep would put Beka out of business. The company depends on testing labs like Trace to keep it in business.

And unlike the managers at Beka, Morris says he's hopeful and optimistic about the future of his industry. Even this year, he expects Trace to turn a strong profit.

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