February Deadline To Get The Lead Out Of Kid's Clothes & Toys: Recycling Allowed?


Image credit:Goodwill store in Los Angeles, Mark Boster /Los Angeles Times

The US Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), under pressure to lessen childhood exposure to lead in toys and clothing, has set a deadline of early February 2009. That's the date by which retailers and thrift stores must either test items likely to contain lead and take them off the shelf - most likely destined for the landfill - or assume the items have lead, and 'remove' them. There is talk of offering an exemption for clothing made of natural fibers; but, several critical environmental and safety issues are not addressed by the CPSC.The government (Federal or State) could easily be made to look heavy handed and unreasonable on this issue, when it's not. The new rule is basic.

The law, aimed at keeping lead-filled merchandise away from children, mandates that all products sold for those age 12 and younger -- including clothing -- be tested for lead and phthalates, which are chemicals used to make plastics more pliable. Those that haven't been tested will be considered hazardous, regardless of whether they actually contain lead.
Via:Los Angeles Times, New safety rules for children's clothes have stores in a fit
What actually has lead and why?
Clothing with soft plastic film bonded on the fabric surface is likely to include a form of vinyl in that film or "applique". Vinyl made in Asia it is likely to contain lead oxide as a stabilizer (added to keep vinyl intact in presence of heat and ozone and light) and added also as an opacifier (providing a nice white tint base, much as lead-based paint does). There are other far less toxic stabilizer and opacifier choices for vinyl; but, lead is generally the cheapest and is commonly used in Asia.

Phthalates also are added to vinyl film to make it flexible. If recent history is any guide, Asian manufacturers are likely to go for the cheapest forms of phthalates available. What might those be? In the worst case, it could be the kinds banned in Europe and California, which are in excess supply, naturally.

Do-dads or jewelry bits affixed to kids clothing are going to be made of the cheapest stuff they can get their hands on: which again could mean lead. (How many beads must one sample to declare an item "safe?" You can easily imagine the dilemma for retailers on this issue.)

Summarizing the hazard exposure.
If children's clothing is made in Asia and has silk screened plastic decoration, jewelry bits, or baubles, it's likely to have lead in high concentration. The same logic applies to doll clothing, costumes, plastic belts and head bands, for example, and any toys made of vinyl components.

Characterizing risk.
Testing costs would be very high in a second hand store carrying items from scores of sources; so, it's probably more cost-effective just to take them out of inventory. Which leads to what? Landfilling seems to be it.

Unanswered questions.
Lead in vinyl is not one of those "who'd have guessed this would happen" things: the issue has been noted for years. CPSC acted now, belatedly, only because Congress pressured them to do so.

That said, here are the unanswered questions.

What of textile recycling? Is that an acceptable re-use of the potentially lead contaminated clothing?

Is landfilling really an acceptable exposure control for lead? Municipal landfills certainly will keep it away from the kids now; but, long term, some of the lead will eventually leach out.

A hazardous waste fill would be terribly expensive - opening up a temptation for illegal disposal enterprises to offer their services. EPA will need to weigh in on the need.

Who is tracking unsalable merchandise that will be generated by the ruling? If there economic value elsewhere, will it just go to third world countries like so much of the toxic debris of US culture?

And, finally, what should consumers do with potentially contaminated items they already own? Hang on to them? Or, donate them to charity, so someone else has the obligation to test?

What can US consumers do now to protect themselves?
First and foremost, stop buying new clothing items with these type of decorations. Not from the Big Box. Not even from Needless Markup at the mall. There's no way to know where it really came from and if it has been tested.

When you wash such clothing items that you already own, keep in mind that applique breaks down eventually - as hand me downs clearly evidence - potentially dispersing lead to other items in the wash. When silk screening cracks, dispose or hold (your choice); but at least wash those with cracked decorations separately.

What if the the new rules are stonewalled by pleas of economic hardship?
Regarding purchase of new items: Theoretically, if enough people stop buying clothing that serves as billboards for TV shows and cartoons, retailers will stop stocking them, distributors will stop offering them, "buyers" and "designers" will stop specifying them, and studios which license intellectual property for the images on such clothing will shoulder some of the responsibility for setting the toxic mess in motion (at least on the clothing side).

For used items:- Regardless of what the CPSC can accomplish starting February 2009, consumers are left to ponder the unanswered questions listed above.

It's surely not a good idea for consumers to donate possibly lead-contaminated items to thrift stores and charities. If not good for you, it's not good for anyone else. And, once you realize that the government is on Good Will Industry to test what you might donate, giving untested kid clothing to them, or to others like them, presents an ethical dilemma that government has abdicated.

On the other hand, it it seems unbearably wasteful to toss out perfectly functional items of clothing without definitive proof that they contain lead at unacceptable concentrations. Establishing a 'proof' of clothing or toy safety requires addressing who bears responsibility for that determination. For this round, CPSC has ruled it is the retailer or charity. Secondly, it is a question of who is responsible to manage the chain of custody for hazard information developed in the first step. Without systems in place for the latter, an item may end up tested several times, and with conflicting results! We have no idea if CPSC has even addressed this.

Perhaps a cheap, fast screening test could be developed for consumers and for thrift or charity shops to classify items into categories of "below detection limit for lead;" "detectable lead - needs further analysis;" and, "high lead levels indicated - headed for disposal." Sounds like an excellent project for an NGO to take on. Maybe with a little help from retailers and designers and Hollywood Studios?

Given that the unemployment rate in the US is already over 7% and going up, and that materials headed for recycling are in excess supply, an all-hands-on-deck solution awaits leadership.

Lead in toys posts from our archives.
Ask TreeHugger: How Do I Test My Toys for Lead?
Barbie, Don't Blame China
Toys, China, Prices, And Burnett On CNBC
In California, Santa’s Elves Took to Streets to Check Tots' Toys ...
The Best Christmas Toy Ever For 2007: Miniature Windmill By ...
One in Three Toys on Shelf Found To Be Toxic
Healthy Toys Database Begins Cutting Through Confusion for ...
Miscellaneous posts on vinyl and lead.
Vinyl Lunch Boxes Found To Contain Lead
A Healthy California School Lunch: Fruit, Veggies, And A Bit Of ...
Sears & Kmart Join Wal-Mart, Target In PVC Reduction Programs ...
Do Babies Exposed to Phthalates Have Smaller Penises?
Green Halloween: Don't Dress To Kill

Tags: Clothing | Vinyl

Best of TreeHugger