Thrift and consignment stores hard hit by new lead law
A federal law designed to protect children from lead products has put Martha's Closet II, a children's clothing consignment shop in Tisbury, out of business and forced Island thrift stores to turn away donations and throw away merchandise.
"There's just too much stuff on the list you have to go through," said Margaret Mirko, who co-owned Martha's Closet II with Janice Gulland. "There are criminal charges, so we can't risk that by selling something that might be questionable. And lead testing is very expensive, so that's that."
Ms. Mirko said Children's Orchard, a consignment store she used to shop at in Hyannis, has also closed.
Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) last year, in reaction to a series of recalls of toy and jewelry items, many of them made in China, that contained high lead content linked to illness and death in several children.
In addition to toys and jewelry, however, the law applies to clothing, which may contain lead in buttons, zippers, and metallic fabric paint. It also applies to books in public and school libraries for children 12 and under.
However, last month the Consumer Product Safety Commission granted a one-year reprieve on testing and certification requirements for library books, which does not apply to retail operations.
The new law that took effect on February 10 prohibits lead levels beyond minute levels of 600 parts per million, in any product designed or intended for children 12 and younger. Not only is it illegal to manufacture products containing lead at that level, but also to sell or distribute them.
The legislation also applies retroactively to goods already in stores. Since most thrift and consignment stores have no means of testing for lead in their merchandise and have no way of proving that their products meet safety standards, they have been forced to pull most, if not all, children's merchandise from their shelves.
"If it was made in China, we just got rid of it - we can't even just give it away at this point," said Dolly Campbell, assistant manager of the Martha's Vineyard Community Services Thrift Shop in Vineyard Haven. "In this day and age, it's so hard for so many people because of the economy, and they're really desperate for children's stuff - it's really sad. We can keep things that don't have any buttons or zippers or snaps, so we do keep those. But as far as toys and most infant clothes and things like that, they're not available."
Although some larger thrift stores, such those run by the Salvation Army, have room to store merchandise in the event they find a way to test it, Ms. Campbell said she does not have the space to do that.
"So what we have done, which is a positive thing, is we've taken the whole children's room and put in a table and tons of books, and just sort of made it a cozy little place for moms and children," Ms. Campbell said. "That's kind of a nice change we've made here - so we're trying to roll with it.
The loss of merchandise has affected the store's revenues, however. "It's a chunk of money - we're definitely feeling it," Ms. Campbell said.
At the Martha's Vineyard Boys and Girls Club Second Hand Store in Edgartown, manager Deborah Alpert-Sylvia said she put some children's items in trash bags and told people it was going outside. Other items went to the landfill. "I took stuff off the floor, and things that I've collected that I would save for next winter," she said. "I'm afraid - I don't know every single person that comes into the store - it could be one of those 'clothes spies.' We'd be out of business on one infraction."
The current penalty for violating the law is $8,000 per infraction, which will increase to $10,000 in August.
Although children's products are not where her store makes its money, Ms. Alpert-Sylvia said it still hurts to have to throw out brand-new items, with summer just around the corner.
She said she is urging customers to write to their congressional representatives and is providing sample letters.
There are currently three bills in Congress aimed at reforming the CPSIA - Senate bill S374, and House bills 1027 and 960. Anyone with concerns about the new law should contact U.S. Rep. William Delahunt's office at 508-771-0666.