LINDA WERTHEIMER, host
New consumer-safety rules go into effect next week, aimed at making children's products safer. After a flood of imported toys came ashore with high lead levels, Congress moved quickly to pass regulations last year. The lawmakers may have moved too quickly because the new law is creating lots of confusion. Tanya Ott reports from member station WBHM in Birmingham.
TANYA OTT: Warning, this story takes more turns than a game of Twister. When Congress passed the law which caps lead levels and other potentially dangerous substances, it said manufacturers must certify their products are safe, and not just toys but clothes, books, blankets - you name it. That sent manufacturers, retailers, public libraries, even eBay sellers scrambling, because they're liable if they sell tainted products. To ease concerns, the agency that will enforce the law said some products might be exempt or maybe not. All this confuses consumer Kathleen Lawrence(ph).
(Soundbite of children playing)
Unidentified Child: I'll make the toast.
(Soundbite of laughter)
OTT: Lawrence sits on the floor of her Birmingham-area home, playing dolls with her daughters. The doll's dress is secondhand, like most of the girls' clothes.
Ms. KATHLEEN LAWRENCE: I would rather spend my money doing other things - a vacation, and it's just - they don't wear them that long. And I like them to look nice, and I can't afford the name brands.
OTT: Lawrence worries the new law will make it harder to find good used clothes, and she's not alone. Across the country, thousands of resale shop owners say the law will hurt their cash-strapped customers, and possibly put them out of business.
Ms. CAROL LEGGETT(ph) (Kids' Kloset Consignment): Do we need to close our doors? Are we not going to be able to take clothes in?
OTT: Carol Leggett of Kids' Kloset consignment in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, just doesn't know. So, she's making changes.
Ms. LEGGETT: Okay, so, for example, this shirt right here.
OTT: She pulls out a blue shirt with glittering, silver rhinestones. Faced with a possibility of a $100,000 fine, Leggett will no longer accept anything that might contain lead.
Mr. JOE MARTYAK (Consumer Product Safety Commission): We have been getting thousands of contacts through e-mails, through phone calls, of people pleading with us.
OTT: Joe Martyak is with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the enforcement agency. He says Congress rushed the bill, making it too broad. Lawmakers aimed at cribs, children's jewelry and small toys, but also hit safe items, like 100-percent cotton clothing.
Mr. MARTYAK: Our hands are tied very tightly, and even if we try to wiggle our fingers, we can't make the magic happen here in the timeframe that has been set up by the legislation.
OTT: Last week, the commission created a little wiggle room and issued a one-year stay on testing and enforcement requirements. But the reprieve doesn't exempt stores. Garment industry consultant Kathleen Fasanella says starting Tuesday, it's illegal to sell untested items.
Ms. KATHLEEN FASANELLA (Garment Industry Consultant): Basically, all of these products, these millions and millions of dollars worth of products, are just going to have to be destroyed. And that'll bury any company.
OTT: In a survey of children's product manufacturers, 70 percent said the law would put them out of business.
(Soundbite of laughter)
OTT: Back on her living room floor, Kathleen Lawrence is banking on entrepreneurial spirit.
Ms. LAWRENCE: Surely somebody's going to start a little business out of their home, a clothes swap or something. People find ways to meet their needs. We'll go on the black market for our kids' clothes.
OTT: It might not come to that. This week, South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint introduced legislation to exempt thrift stores, yard sales and consignment shops. If passed, stores wouldn't have to throw out millions of dollars of their existing product.
For NPR News, I'm Tanya Ott in Birmingham, Alabama.