Get the Lead Out

Helping others, especially needy children is a wonderful thing to do.  The Northwest Indiana Woodworkers Association has been doing this for 19 years.  However, due to a new law concerning protecting children from finishes containing lead, we will not be able to continue giving toys after February, 2010 unless we have them tested.  This applies to everyone according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission.

You will be breaking the law if you distribute items to children age 12 and under unless they have been tested for lead.

It does not make sense because the the problem of finish containing lead comes from imported products, not items made by you and I.

We have told our congressman and senators about this situation, but they do not seem to be concerned.

— Robert Roach

When I get e-mails like this one, my first reaction is to think that it is some kind of Internet chain letter hoax.  I mean, it sounds too crazy to be true.  With all of the problems in the country today, to think that the government would concern itself with the products coming out of my  – or anyone else’s – workshop just seems too unreal.

But, Robert and the rest of the woodworkers in the Northwest Indiana Woodworker’s Association are indeed telling the truth. As of February 10, 2010, it will now be considered against the law to give a finished wood project intended for a child under the age of 12 – or a piece of furniture to be used for a child under the age of three – without having it tested in an independent laboratory for lead content.

For real.  You can read about it here.

Crazy, ain’t it?

Now, it’s not the wood that’s the problem.  In fact, wood is specifically listed as a non-lead containing material.  Make a thousand unfinished wooden projects and give them away freely. It’s  the finish that is what’s at issue.

To understand what’s going on with this, let’s go back a few decades.  For centuries, lead was an important part of the paint and finish industry.  Lead was an excellent pigment for white and bright yellows, and also sped drying, increased durability, retained a fresh appearance and resisted moisture that causes corrosion.  It was everywhere…

Until lead paint was linked to severe health issues.  It is especially damaging to children under age six whose bodies are still developing. Lead causes nervous system damage, hearing loss, stunted growth, ADD, ADHD and delayed development. It can cause kidney damage and affects every organ system of the body. It also is dangerous to adults, and can cause reproductive problems for both men and women.

So, in 1978, lead was banned in paints for residential applications.  However, there are some finishes where lead can still be found.  And, when products are imported from overseas manufacturers, it seems as if there are new reported cases of elevated lead levels in toys nearly every year.

This regulation is now in place to help prevent possible future lead poisoning cases.

But, doesn’t it seem to cast a net too widely?

To help get to the bottom of this issue, I made a call to the Consumer Products Safety Commission.  I identified myself as a woodworking blogger and asked to speak to someone knowledgeable about the topic.  I was connected to a nice gentleman named Joe Tsai, who was able to answer my questions.

First, I asked Joe the question that’s on the minds of just about all woodworkers.  If you are building a cradle for a grandchild or a rocking horse for a niece or nephew, do you need to have in tested?  “No… you really aren’t distributing the items if you are building one at a time for an individual child.  We’re counting on woodworkers to use their common sense and seek out  lead-free products for finishing on their own.”

What about Robert’s situation, where a number of woodworkers are building projects to donate to a charity? “Well, in that case, we would advise you to get one of the items you are building tested.  This way, you protect yourself and the group should someone later have it tested and want to sue.”  Yes, that’s right, Joe said that as long as the same finish product is being used on the projects, just one of the batch will need to be tested, not the entire lot.

Joe said that the CPSC offers a list of independent laboratories that can do the testing for a fee.

That’s all well and good, but something still didn’t make sense for me.  Hear me out.  Say the Amalgamated Weasel Spit Finish Factory makes a finishing product that imparts a hard-wearing, hand-rubbed finish to your wood project.  Why not test the big parent batches of finish while they are being made at the factory instead of asking the 20,000 woodworkers to get their projects tested for lead?

It’s thinkin’ like that that gets me into trouble.  But, not this time.

This time, instead, I put a call in to the folks at Minwax, arguably one of the largest wood finish manufacturers in the world.  I was connected to a really nice guy named Kyle Holtz.  I asked him what the industry is doing to help address this issue.

It turns out, quite a bit.

Back in 2007, Sherwin Williams/Minwax was working with the government and their own product safety people to determine which of their products were compliant with the upcoming regulations.  A memo was recently circulated to their consumer information techs and  reads:

We received Regulatory approval in March of 2007 to recommend Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane, Minwax Wipe-On Oil-based Polyurethane Finish and Helmsman Spar Urethane as coatings used on (baby or child) furniture and toys. Originally Polycrylic was on that list but was taken off back in April of 2009. If a customer wants to know what products are safe to use if they can be chewed /ingested we should make no recommendation.

OK, so the folks at Minwax can’t tell you that their products can be eaten safely, but they can indeed be used for furniture and toys that won’t be ingested or chewed on.  For Minwax, they understand that the build – and – do-it-yourself community is their main audience, and anything they can do to help woodworkers adjust to these new regulations is only going to help their bottom line.

What does this ultimately mean for the home woodworker?  Well, if you are building for your family or a friend, you have the green light.  If you are concerned about lead, call the finish manufacturer to ensure you get the safest product possible.

If you are going in on a group charity build, it would be worth it to get the Material Data Safety Sheet and any other documentation from the manufacturer and look strongly into  getting an item of the lot tested… just to ensure you are walking the straight and narrow and to head off any possible lawsuits.

And, build away!  The kids who are getting these gems are the ultimate winners.

For your reference, here are a few contacts for some of the larger finish manufacturers:

Editor’s Note:  Yes, this article deals only with toy donations… not the sale of toys.  If you build and sell toys, consult the CPCS for regulations that affect you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *