New Lead Laws Affect 2nd Hand Clothing Stores

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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.

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.

“I would rather spend my money on other things: a vacation. 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.”

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.

“Do we need to close our doors? Are we not going to be able to take clothes in?”

Karol Leggett of Kidz Closet Consignment in Vestavia Hills just doesn’t know. So she’s making changes.

She pulls out a blue shirt with glittering, silver rhinestones. Faced with the possibility of a $100,000 fine, Leggett will no longer accept anything that might contain lead.

“We have been getting thousands of contacts at the agency through emails, through phone calls, through visits of people pleading with us.”

oe 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% cotton clothing.

“Our hands are tied very tightly and even if we could wiggle our fingers we can’t make the magic happen here in the timeframe that has been set up by the legislation.”

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.

“Basically, all of these products, millions and millions of dollars in products are just going to have to be destroyed. And that will bury any company.”

In a survey of children’s product manufacturers, 70% said the law would put them out of business.

Back on her living room floor, Kathleen Lawrence is banking on entrepreneurial spirit.

“Surely somebody’s going to start a little business of their own – a clothes swap. People find ways to meet their needs. We’ll go on the black market for our kids clothes.”

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.

Hear from one children’s advocacy group which supports the legislation.