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.

11 replies on “Get the Lead Out”

  1. Roger Sullivan says:

    Tom,
    Thank you very much for this write up.
    I just became aware of this problem about a month ago. My old Doctor (retired) who is very much into the Toys for Tots etc. was very concerned about this new development and upset that it would kill his (and meny others) hobby of making wooden toys for charity.
    I hope he sees this information (I’ll make sure he does) and can continue doing his part of helping children less fortunate.
    This artical or one like it needs to be published in every wood working magazine and internet site across the country to ease the minds of those who “just want to help” by providing wooden toys to tots.
    Again, THANK YOU!

    Rog

  2. dan marshall says:

    Tom, thanks for writing about this. I wanted to let you know that several of us from the Handmade Toy Alliance met with CPSC Commissioner Adler and CPSC staff last week and raised some of these same questions. Here’s a few clarifications:

    According to Commissioner Adler, the CPSIA regulates only interstate commerce, which means that items made for charity are not subject to the 3rd party testing requirements. If you sell your toys, however, the full force of the CPSIA applies. We have heard various interpretations of this, however, and the CPSC has put nothing in writing about this distinction, but I feel confident that charity crafters can rest a little easier (assuming of course they are making safe products to begin with).

    Second, I want to stress that Material Safety Data Sheets are NOT acceptable to satisfy CPSIA testing requirements. Any surface finish which is not absorbed by the substrate and can be scraped off is subject to mandatory 3rd party testing requirements NOW. So, if you’re selling painted or varnished toys, you must have them tested at a CPSC-certified 3rd party lab. This requirement has not been put on hold and has been in effect since last December.

    Third, I would strongly urge anyone who makes toys to sell to get involved in the fight to amend the CPSIA. Join the Handmade Toy Alliance today, where we’ve been working together to influence congress and the CPSC. We’ve already won exemptions for natural materials, but there’s much more to do. Help us save small batch children’s products. http://www.handmadetoyalliance.org.

  3. Tom says:

    Dan –

    Thank you. My purpose was to try to help find the real story about this and allay some of the fears that are out there.

    I am glad to see that this topic is being addressed.

  4. John Greco says:

    Great article to help raise awareness on the aweful unintended consequences of the CPSIA, but there is a major correction I need to point out. The CPSC has issued a 1 year stay of enforcement on 3rd party lead testing on everything EXCEPT surface coatings.

    That means that currently all surface coatings on items for children 12 and under, such as paint and anything else applied to an otherwise exempt material like wood, need to be tested to meet the recently lowered amount of 90 parts per million. There are natural items that do not require this, such as pure tung oil or shellac, but if anything has been added during the processing of them, they too must be tested.

    Currently it is the final item that requires testing, but the CPSC seems intent on allowing for lead component testing in the near future.

    The test fee per component ranges from about $20-80, with the majority of the less expensive labs being located, sadly, in Asia.

    I strongly encourage people to write to their Congressmen about this. This law deals with anything for children, from toys to furniture to bicycles. Due to the strict wording of the law, the CPSC even recently had to determine that brass was a banned hazardous substance for kids. Yes- brass, like you find in trumpets and door handles.

    -John Greco

  5. Dyami says:

    Wow. I’m impressed, Tom. I probably would have just turn a cheek and ignored the issue. Nice follow up and nice answers.

  6. Brian says:

    Tom i read and search many different wood websites and have been a member of yours for a while,
    i have found that you go all the way to help inform the woodworking community and really help inform all levels of wood workers, the information and detail is wonderful and easily to understand,
    I want to thank you for your time and dedication to woodworking!!!

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