Organic clothing for children is a hot item these days. For good reason — cotton pesticides and chemicals added during manufacturing leave potentially harmful residues on fabrics. These chemical residues often irritate babies’ extra-sensitive skin, and, in the long term, may harm a child’s respiratory and immune development.
For example, formaldehyde is one chemical commonly found in clothing. Formaldehyde is valuable to manufacturers because it repels mildew and reduces stains and wrinkling during storage and shipping, but it raises health concerns for wearers. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), formaldehyde exposure in amounts greater than 20 parts per million can irritate skin, nose, and eyes and ultimately may lead to asthma and cancer. The European Union bans the sale of children’s clothing with formaldehyde levels above 30 parts per million. In contrast, despite acknowledging that formaldehyde is a “probable human carcinogen,” the US government has set no limit for the formaldehyde content of clothing. In the absence of such limits, formaldehyde can range far above safe levels — one TV report in New Zealand found formaldehyde levels as high as 18,000 parts per million (900 times the WHO’s “safe level”) in Chinese-made clothing. And the problem isn’t limited to low-priced off-brands: Victoria’s Secret currently faces a class-action lawsuit claiming formaldehyde-treated bras gave wearers serious skin rashes.
Unfortunately, organics can be expensive. Luckily, there is at least one low-cost alternative: Many chemical residues wash away after a handful of launderings, so parents can lessen chemical exposure by buying their children’s clothing secondhand. (Preworn = prewashed.) Because babies grow so quickly, secondhand baby clothing routinely appears in like-new condition. It is also much less expensive than new items, and as an added bonus keeps useful items out of landfills. Overall, a win-win situation.
That is, the situation was win-win…. Under a recent consumer-protection law, selling used children’s clothing and toys will become illegal on February 10. (Yes, you read that right — selling used clothing and toys will be illegal.) Barring last-minute regulatory changes, thrift stores and consignment shops must throw away their current stock of secondhand children’s items on that date** and stop offering children’s goods in the future.
The law in question — the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA) — was enacted in the wake of recent scares involving lead-tainted children’s products from China. The CPSIA includes many important changes, such as beefing up the government’s ability to regulate dangerous products. And obviously no one wants children to be poisoned by lead-tainted products. In fact, the CPSIA had near-unanimous support in both the House and the Senate. Unfortunately, the lawmakers do not seem to have noticed that the Act’s requirements are applied in a disturbingly overbroad manner. Specifically, beginning February 10, nothing intended for use by children under 12 can be sold unless it has undergone expensive testing to certify that it is lead-free. Many items for children under 3 will require additional testing for plastic-softening chemicals called phthalates.
Large manufacturers can absorb these testing costs, but the rule spells doomsday for home-based crafters and other small businesses. (Ironically, some of the companies that will be driven out of business produce organic goods and other healthy products; they simply can’t afford the testing to prove it.) The CPSIA contains no exception for previously-sold products, and a secondhand seller could never afford to test each individual item before resale — hence the dire consequences for the secondhand industry. Technically, it will be illegal even to donate children’s goods to charity because anything without a testing certificate is deemed “dangerous” under law. Thus the CPSIA’s unintended consequence is that, even for poor families, the only option may be to buy new goods from large companies.
Worse still, despite these draconian effects, the CPSIA barely addresses the problem of chemicals in fabric. Lead does appear in a few dyes, and more commonly in appliques, rhinestones, or charms. One toddler tragically died after ingesting a lead charm off his shoes. But on the whole, lead is not as widespread or serious a problem as substances like formaldehyde. And by taking away my access to well-washed secondhand goods, the CPSIA reduces my ability as a parent to fight the chemicals that worry me most!
A few discussions of the CPSIA have popped up around the Blogosphere in the past month — I remember reading posts on The Consumerist and BoingBoing, as well as a handful of parent blogs. But the early focus was on toymakers, and, while I feel bad for small-business owners, frankly I didn’t care enough about toys to feel compelled to action. But this clothing issue is a whole different story! I planned to buy the majority of Wallaby’s baby and toddler clothing secondhand or from small sellers at places like Etsy, but in practical terms those options are now gone. Turns out, this law affects me as a consumer in ways I never imagined. And this time, I plan to take action.
Would you like to learn more about the CPSIA, or to take action? Please see the links below.
Images in this post are baby items that will not survive implementation of the CPSIA. (Flikr sources for one, two, three, & four.) I previously coveted the blanket in Image One on Etsy, though of course I had no idea its purchase would condemn Wallaby to certain death!
** Don’t even get me started on throwing away useful items — a topic for another post. Suffice it to say that most landfills don’t offer ideal conditions for biodegradability, and even food and paper often last years beyond their normal life expectancy. Thrown-away clothing will serve no purpose other than further clogging our landfills for decades to come.
For More Information
The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s website summarizing CPSIA regulatory developments
How to Take Action