February 5, 2009 at 9:27 am

New lead law worries resale shops

Stiffer rules may make kids' resale items scarce

In Rochester, Funky Frog resale shop co-owner Larry Fenn shows toys he's liquidating for half-price before the law kicks in Tuesday. (Velvet S. McNeil / The Detroit News)

Metro Detroit thrift stores are clearing their toy shelves, parents are scared to sell their kids' castoffs on eBay and lawyers are warning secondhand stores to lock their doors as the deadline for a confusing and unwieldy new federal law on lead looms.

In New York City, garment workers and clothing manufacturers protested the law on Wednesday. And on Capitol Hill the law's original sponsors called on Tuesday for the resignation of the agency head charged with implementing the new rules, saying the process has been botched.

The new law, passed last summer following the recall of several Chinese-manufactured toys, is intended to promote safety by requiring manufacturers to independently certify that their wares don't exceed a new threshold of 600 parts per million of lead. The law applies to all items for children 12 and younger, including toys, books and clothing, regardless of when they were made.

The problem for retailers is that even though they're not required to test merchandise, they face fines of $100,000 or prison time if they sell any children's goods that exceed the new lead limit.

That's not an issue for stores that sell new goods and can simply stock their shelves with certified merchandise, but Metro Detroit thrift and consignment stores say they have no way of knowing if the donated or consigned items they sell meet the new lead limits.

Now resellers worry that they must either shut their doors or face hefty fines or jail terms if the law isn't clarified before it takes effect Feb. 10.

"Following the letter of the law is impossible," said Adele Meyer, spokeswoman for the St. Clair Shores-based National Association of Retail and Thrift Shops. "They don't want to go to jail. They don't want $100,000 fines. They're worried about losing their insurance."

Cheap kids' items may dry up

The problem threatens to hit the pocketbooks of the growing number of parents turning to thrift, consignment and resale shops in this dismal economy, to either stretch their dollars for clothing and other children's gear or to raise cash by selling clothes, cribs and other items their kids have outgrown.

Last Friday, the Consumer Protection Safety Commission tried to ease problems with the law by extending the deadline for testing to next year. That may help manufacturers and importers, but penalties for selling contraband goods still will apply.

"The only way to find out if we're breaking the law is to test them," said Suzanne Fenn, co-owner of the Funky Frog in Rochester Hills, which sells secondhand children's clothing, books, jewelry and toys. A batch of items worth only a few dollars could cost thousands to test.

Meyer said the law will be devastating for the consignment business; she has heard of resellers in Alabama and Atlanta who plan on shuttering, and of Metro Detroit attorneys warning resellers to close shop.

Fenn's shop is liquidating its stock of toys at half price. "I have no interest in playing Russian roulette with the law," she said.

Law called overreaching

Clothing with snaps, rivets, buttons and zippers also is subject to the law, a measure resellers say is overreaching.

Safety is a No. 1 goal but the law's measures are extreme, noted Lourdes Weidl, owner of Baby Baby in Northville. "

"We all grew up -- me and my friends -- without these rules, and we were fine," Weidl said.

Even the bill's sponsors agree that the rules are unclear, with Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., saying he was "troubled by the firestorm of misinformation" about the new lead rules.

Waxman and co-sponsor, Rep. Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., wrote to President Barack Obama on Tuesday asking him to urge acting Consumer Product Safety Commission Chairwoman Nancy Nord to step down, alleging that the law's implementation has been "grossly mishandled."

On Wednesday, hundreds of garment workers, small-business owners and manufacturers rallied at Macy's flagship New York City store to protest the new law, saying it will cost them jobs and profits.

The Coalition for Safe and Affordable Childrenswear, which represents manufacturers and family business workers, says the new rules would cost thousands of jobs and drive companies out of business.

Coalition members have been lobbying Congress to ease a retroactive provision of the law they claim will force them to pull $500 million worth of products from shelves.

Kristy Kowatch, who owns Twice Blessed in Lake Orion, said she has stopped accepting toys, strollers and cribs -- even though these larger items help pay the rent -- because she doesn't want to risk selling illegal goods.

"I'm just going to play it day by day," Kowatch said. "I just want to abide by the rules."

Parents who consign their children's old clothing to buy new ones also will feel the pinch.

"I think the premise behind the law is a good one," said Amy Gora of Rochester Hills, "but it's way too strict."

Gora said she will have to stop selling toys and clothes belonging to her 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old twin sons on eBay and at the Funky Frog.

The law is "very well intentioned but whether or not it's workable in its current form -- that's what we need to find out," said Eric Rule, director of government affairs for the Michigan Retailers Association. "There aren't even enough labs to do that, as far as I understand."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. You can reach Jaclyn Trop at (313) 222-2300 or jtrop@detnews.com">jtrop@detnews.com.

Janine Polewarczyk, 42, of Rochester Hills shops at the Funky Frog. ... (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)