Toy safety rules give local makers the jitters

  • By Eric Fetters Herald reporter
  • Thursday, April 3, 2008 1:18pm

Gov. Chris Gregoire’s approval of the nation’s toughest toy-safety rules Tuesday has local toy manufacturers and retailers worried about what the new law means for them.

While no one seems to disagree with the law’s intention, at least one local toymaker said he might have to move out of state to stay in business.

“This is basically going to cripple the toy industry in the state of Washington,” said Bob Knight, founder and chief executive of Find It Games, which assembles and distributes toys at its Monroe headquarters.

Proponents of the new Children’s Safe Product Act said Knight is overly concerned and that implementation can be done with forethought to minimize any unintended consequences.

“This is a win for parents who want to know the toys they buy are safe,” said Ivy Sager-Rosenthal, environmental health advocate for Washington Toxics Coalition, which lobbied for the new law. Both the state House and Senate overwhelmingly passed it.

The toy-safety legislation was crafted by state lawmakers after the discovery of high lead levels and other dangerous chemicals in toys led to multiple nationwide recalls last year. In all, 20 million toys were recalled.

Gregoire said the bill’s virtues outweigh its flaws.

“Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our children,” the governor said in a press statement. “The toys and products we give them must meet the highest possible standards of product safety.”

The law, which is scheduled to take effect in July 2009, reduces the allowable level of lead in toys from the federal standard of 600 parts per million to 90 parts per million. Officials also have the option of lowering the standard further to 40 parts per million.

Additionally, the law sets stricter limits on phthalates, which can cause health problems, and on cadmium, a metal used in paints and plastics. Some studies link phthalates, used to help make plastics malleable, to possible hormonal and developmental problems.

In signing the bill into law, Gregoire vetoed a requirement that called for toy companies to report any “chemicals of high concern” in all toys by January 2010.

That and other changes the governor made in her signing of the bill relieved Debbie Baillie, co-owner of Rowdy Rascals Toy Store in Snohomish. Her toy shop focuses on educational and quality toys, said Baillie, noting that not one of the toys or games on her shelves has been recalled.

“The intention of the law is beautiful — to protect kids. That’s why I opened a toy store,” Baillie said. But she was concerned about the effects of the new law, as she’s talked to manufacturers of small toys who aren’t sure they can easily meet the state’s guidelines.

After reading through the signed version, however, Baillie said she felt more confident that her business might not be dramatically affected.

“It’s a lot better than I originally feared,” she said.

In the days before the governor’s signing, executives from giant toy makers Mattel and Hasbro personally met with Gregoire. Knight and smaller, independent companies also met with the governor.

Knight said he might have to move Find It out of state to keep making his games.

The reason is that he’s not sure his materials would meet the new standard. Even if his product could work under the law, he estimates it would add about $800,000 in expense to his annual operations, mostly for added testing.

The managers behind Archie McPhee, who operate the online retail and wholesale side of their toy and novelty business out of Mukilteo, have said they’re concerned about the possible implications and costs as well.

Both Knight and Baillie said they pushed for the state to adopt the European Union’s toy safety standards. Knight already tests his games to make sure they meet those standards, as he has customers in Europe.

While the EU added its phthalates ban in 1999, the rest of its standards are two decades old and about to be tightened, Sager-Rosenthal said.

“It didn’t make sense to adopt a standard that’s about to be obsolete,” she said, adding that 10 other U.S. states are considering toy safety rules similar to Washington’s.

One thing all sides agree on is that better federal toy safety legislation would be preferable to a state-by-state approach. Gregoire said she didn’t think it was prudent to wait for that to come.

In signing the toy-safety act, Gregoire said other changes and clarifications could be made to the legislation. She ordered the formation of an advisory group, representing the toy industry, health professionals and others, to work on the practical implementation of the law.

Knight, who already was getting a flurry of e-mails from colleagues Tuesday afternoon, said he will “sit back for a couple of days and figure out what this means.”

He predicted that the issue was far from dead, however.

“I’m anticipating the lawyers are going to get a hold of this and have a field day and it’s going to end up costing the state more money,” he said.

Eric Fetters is a reporter with the Herald of Everett.

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