National toy standards provide the best solution

When the president signed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act Aug.14, independent toy retailers, manufacturers and parents breathed a collective sigh of relief. The law sets uniform national standards for toys and children’s products, makes testing mandatory and puts teeth in the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s oversight of toy safety.

Washington toymakers and sellers were especially eager for this law to pass. In the last session, the Washington Legislature passed the Children’s Safe Products Act. The intent sounded good and who could vote against it in an election year?

But the stringent testing and registration requirements and in some cases, reformulation, for unique toy standards in one state – 2 percent of the nation’s toy market and a far thinner slice of the global toy pie – would be too costly for the small and mid-sized manufacturers who supply independent toy stores.

Time and again, these manufacturers said, “We can’t afford to sell in Washington if this passes.”

It was not a stretch to predict that Washington’s children would find good, safe educational toys – the kind independents have always carried – online or across state borders.

Washington Toxics Coalition had been quietly working on this bill since the recalls of 2007 made toys a hot-button issue. When Washington’s specialty toy community learned of it in January, it formed a loose grassroots organization to educate lawmakers of its unintended effects. Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the bill April 1 but struck two sections and noted, “Without careful implementation, this bill could adversely affect the availability of safe toys in our state, including important educational toys.”

She formed an advisory group of parties from all sides of the issue to ensure the bill meets “common sense” requirements.

On Sept. 9, that group will focus on how and whether the federal law preempts the state law. For instance, which standards for lead will take precedence – Washington’s 90 parts per million with a goal of 40 ppm the federal standard of 100 ppm or lower if feasible? Washington’s law addresses cadmium, the federal law doesn’t. The federal law includes labeling requirements. How will customers know if state standards are met?

Meanwhile, in the other Washington, CPSC is tasked with proposing and adopting the regulations that will implement the new law. One issue for small manufacturers is testing. One test can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars and some toys require multiple tests. A game with different colored pieces, for example, needs testing for each color.

Even before it becomes mandatory, voluntary toy testing has ramped up considerably this year. Poof Slinky, manufacturer of the still-made-in-America venerable Slinky toy, reports that of all rising costs this year – materials, labor, shipping, packaging, the shrinking dollar – testing costs have taken the biggest jump at an astounding 800 percent.

Still, the toy world welcomed the federal toy safety legislation.

A patchwork of state toy safety standards would cause chaos and defeat the goal of providing safe toys. Such bills have passed in a handful of states and been proposed in more than 30. But they have served a purpose: putting pressure on Congress to finally pass a federal bill that requires safe toys uniformly throughout the country. It’s the only commonsense solution in a global economy.

We never dreamed selling toys would be so political.

Mary Sisson owns Kazoodles, a Vancouver-based independent toy store, and serves on the board and edits the national magazine of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association.