Sep 18, 2009 11 Comments ›› Erik Wong
Americans who slap $1 pricetags on their used possessions at garage sales or bazaar events risk being slapped with fines of up to $15 million, thanks to a new government campaign.
The “Resale Round-up,” launched by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, enforces new limits on lead in children’s products and makes it illegal to sell any items that don’t meet those limits or have been recalled for any other reason.
The strict standards were set in the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act after a series of high-profile recalls of Chinese-made toys.
The standards were originally interpreted to apply only to new products, but now the CPSC says they apply to used items as well.
“Those who resell recalled children’s products are not only breaking the law, they are putting children’s lives at risk,â€ said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. “Resale stores should make safety their business and check for recalled products and hazards to children.”
In order to comply, stores, flea markets, charities and individuals selling used goods â€” in person or online â€” are expected to consult the commission’s 24-page Handbook for Resale Stores and Product Resellers (pdf) and its Web site for a breakdown of what they can’t sell.
Violators caught selling anything on the enormous list face fines of up to $100,000 per infraction and up to $15 million for a related series of infractions.
Though the CPSC says it won’t be sending enforcers to garage sales or yard sales, FOX News Legal Analyst Bob Massi says the law makes no distinction for families and small resellers.
“Most people having garage sales at this point don’t have much anyway, so to have a fine levied against them is tantamount to harassment,” Massi told FOXNews.com. “And if you or I asked 100 people about this, they would never even know the law exists.”
Don Mays, senior director of product safety planning at the publisher of Consumer Reports, says the hefty penalties are necessary to have an impact.
“The former civil penalty limit of $1.87 million was too small to be an effective deterrent to large companies who flagrantly violated the law,” Mays told FOXNews.com. “Mattel and its subsidiary Fisher-Price, for example, recently paid a $2.3 million penalty for importing about 2 million toys that violated the CPSC 30-year-old lead paint ban â€” that amounts to just over one dollar per toy.”
When FOXNews.com came to his garage sale, vendor Ilan Broochian said the same was not the case for his household.
“You fine me in today’s economy $1000 dollars and that would hurt me,” Broochian said. “So, just make the fine bigger to them; don’t take their responsibility and put it on me.”
“It is scary to think that there could be such hefty fines imposed on unsuspecting households,” another garage sale organizer, Patti Lombardi, told FOXNews.com. “I think I speak for many people when I say that the government spends too much time interfering in the individual citizen’s personal life and this is almost bordering on the ridiculous … what if it opens up a Pandora’s box of litigation brought by the purchasers of items at garage sales?”
CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson says the law may be tough, but it’s necessary to keep consumers â€” and especially children â€” safe.
“Many children have choked and died on small parts that have broken off or been incorporated into toys,” Wolfson told FOXNews.com.
He noted that dozens of children have swallowed powerful magnets that fell out of magnetic toys and have needed open-chest surgery as result.
“We donâ€™t make haphazard decisions about risks here at CPSC,” he said. “So much of what we do here and what this new law aims to achieve is looking at issues where children have been hurt previously.”
But critics say the Resale Round-up is just another example of the government overstepping its boundaries.
“It’s absurd when nanny-state bureaucrats want to regulate things we buy at mom-and-pop shops or second-hand stores,” Wes Benedict, executive director of the Libertarian National Committee, told FOXNews.com. “Consumer product safety is best left to a free market where suppliers can compete based on reputation and track records. American grown-ups aren’t stupid, and they know they need to be careful about what they buy for their children from complete strangers at no-name stores.”
Toy industry expert and TimetoPlayMag.com content director Chris Byrne says the law is well-intended, but it may be taking things too far.
“The overall law I think is awfully broad and doesn’t take all of the science into effect,” he told FOXNews.com. “You can’t consume lead by touching something and putting your finger in your mouth. That’s not how it happens. The lead has to be injested and has to be injested in particles small enough to enter the bloodstream or on a material in the stomach where it will be digested in the stomach acids and go into the bloodstream â€” and that’s never happened from toys.”
In cases where toys have injured children, Byrne said the injuries often resulted from misusing the product.
“In virtually all the cases of magnet swallowing these were things that were swallowed by kids that were below the age grade, or in the case of the older kids they were pretending to have tongue piercings. By banning magnets, you’re not going to stop that level of play,” Byrne said.
“When you bring something into your home there should be an assumption of risk,” he added. “And if you have a child under 3 and you bring in something age graded for 5 and up â€“ who’s responsibility is that? I think it’s the parents’.”
And toys aren’t the only issue. Byrne said the biggest challenge now is for all school products.
“If I’ve got a wirebound notebook, the lead content in that wire binding is now under scrutiny, even though the chance of ingesting lead in any amount from something like that is virtually non-existent,” he said. “It’s a level of political grandstanding to say ‘we’re taking care of everything,’ but the science clearly demonstrates that the transference is not really possible â€” I mean, a child who eats the wire binding from a notebook is going to have significantly worse health problems than lead.”
The Resale Round-up has led some resale stores and charities to stop accepting children’s goods altogether, something President and CEO of Goodwill Industries Jim Gibbons said has some clients concerned.
“I saw on blogs, consumers saying, ‘Don’t take away my ability to shop at Goodwill for children’s clothing â€“ this is how I clothe my kids and get them to school,'” Gibbons told FOXNews.com.
The problem, he said, is every not-for-profit and ‘mom and pop thrift shop’ has different capabilities and resources and a broad-brush approach may leave them unable to provide services.
Still, Gibson said, Goodwill generally has been able to continue serving its communities, and he believes CPSC is working hard to take a law “that was probably written in haste” and implement it in an effective manner.
“They’re really committed to common-sense approaches and working in good faith with at least the social services kind of thrift segment,” he said. “And we’ve been working very proactively with them to make sure that folks at Goodwill are educated, have access to the CPSC guidelines and are making themselves available for as much training as CPSC can provide as they try to figure out how to work with this legislation.”
For more information on the Resale Round-up go to www.cspc.gov.