Safety Testing for Handmade Toys

Safety Testing

“I make teddy bears and sell them in my Etsy shop. I probably earn a few hundred dollars a year right now, but I’m hoping to grow my business over time. I sew my bears from fleece, stuff them with polyfill, and use plastic safety eyes.

My bears make great baby gifts, but I worry sometimes whether they’re safe for babies. I mean, I think they are, but how can I really know? And if, god forbid, something terrible happened and a baby choked or something, could I be held liable?“

Does this scenario sound familiar to you? Safety is a big concern for those of us who make things for children. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night worrying that a seam on the bear I just sold might not have been strong enough, or trying to remember if I tied a double knot when I sewed on that button. It’s scary!

Equally scary is the possibility of a lawsuit that could shut down your business and put your livelihood in danger. And what about the U.S. government? Could they come after you, and fine you, if someone reports that your toy is dangerous?

Perhaps you’ve added some wording about safety on your tags or online listings such as, “This toy is not intended for children under age 3,” but wondered if that was enough. Does adding that language really hold any power to protect you and your business?

Looking on Etsy right now I’m really struck by the variety of safety disclaimers sellers have on their shops. Here are two, for example, that seem to contradict one another:

“Filled with premium, non-allergenic, polyester fiberfill, and finished with quality safety eyes, this toy is perfect for children of all ages.”

“Safety eyes are hard to remove, but like any other toys with small parts, please use your judgment when purchasing this for a child.”

So which is it? Are safety eyes safe or aren’t they? Is it that the eyes can be removed and swallowed, or is it that the eyes might contain lead or other harmful chemicals?

Many sellers don’t mention safety concerns at all, even though they’re using those same materials.

One thing’s for sure: there doesn’t seem to be a unified language or behavior around safety standards among handmade softie makers in the United States.

 

Yesterday I spoke with Neal Cohen, the Small Business Ombudsman at the Consumer Product Safety Commission to learn more about what’s actually required of small handmade businesses when it comes to toy safety in the United States. We would have recorded our conversation as a podcast, but when you work for the federal government getting on a recorded line becomes tricky.

Neal was incredibly nice, and very patient with my questions, but after an hour it became clear to me why there’s so much confusion when it comes to toy safety: the standards are hugely complex. There’s no simple 1-2-3 that you can go through to determine the types of testing your toys might need, or to choose a testing lab. There’s no perfect set of phrases to add to your labels or tags that will properly warn customers and protect you as a maker.

It’s a tangled maze.

What is Actually Required by Law?

In 2008 Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) which states that all manufacturers must pay a
qualified lab to test and certify any product intended for children and that every product needs to be labeled in case of a recall. There is no exception based on the size of the operation. You must go through testing even if you’re making just one teddy bear to sell, or donating your softies to charity.

The testing is done by for-profit companies that have been approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the tests involve two parts: a chemical test for lead and other heavy metals and a physical/mechanical test for the strength of the  components. All testing has to be outsourced. You cannot legally test at home.

One bit of good news. Fabrics and polyfill are exempt from lead testing in the U.S., unless the fabric has been screen printed. This means you don’t have to go through that test if you’re making things from fabric. But safety eyes, plastic noses, doll joints, and polybeads used for stuffing all have to be tested. And if you use safety eyes in different colors, every color has to be tested separately.

Supplies that have already been tested and certified by the manufacturer will suffice if you can get a copy of the certificate. If you buy your supplies from a big box craft supply store, though, you may not be able to get the certificates. According to Neal, those stores are selling a component part, not toys intended for children, and aren’t obligated to show you anything.

So, the short version of the story is unless you’re sending your toys out for testing and getting certificates of safety for every material used, you are in violation of the law.

Let’s be honest for a minute now. You’re not doing that, and neither am I. The truth is everyone is breaking the law.

Do We Shut Down Our Businesses Now?

This information can make you feel paralyzed. I’m imagining you, like me, are pretty used to being a law-abiding citizen. So how do we go forward? And what happens to the 49,670 items on Etsy that are currently in violation of the law?

Maybe you should label all your toys as sculptures intended for people 18 and older. Neal says no. Overall, the government deems all plush as toys. That being said, every product is looked at holistically. Exceptions would be made for toys with a clear adult theme, or plush set at a very high price point. If your plush is indeed intended for adults, though, don’t show it in photos with kids or in a child’s room. That kind of marketing is misleading and will work against you.

What about sewing patterns for children’s items? A sewing pattern is not a children’s product and is therefore not subjected to these standards. If someone buys your pattern, sews a toy and gives it to a baby who gets hurt, you’re not on the hook for that. All the more reason to get into the pattern business!

But what if you’ve built your business around selling handmade products for children?

Neal is an ombudsman and as such is very diplomatic. He can only say so much. But from him I learned two basic things. First, it’s important to make the distinction between compliance and safety. Safety means sewing a toy with lead-free fabric, stuffing it with polyfill, and embroidering the facial features so they won’t come off. Avoid plastic parts. It’s easy to make safe toys. Compliance is much more difficult.

Second, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has 520 employees. This is not the Food and Drug Administration with 20,000+ employees. The sheer number of handmade toys on the market far outweighs the manpower available to enforce the law. Neal didn’t say that, but I am.

I wanted to see if what I was concluding was indeed accurate so I reached out to April Putnam. April is an Etsy seller and she heads up the CPSIA compliance team on Etsy.  April has worked professionaly as a Product Safety and Compliance Coordinator
with companies that make all kinds of products from jewelry to pet products, ceramics, fashion accessories, toys and apparel. She is a self-described CPSIA geek.

April was able to tell me what Neal couldn’t.

“In my opinion, while CPSIA seems like a huge scary beast, and yes it totally is, the handcrafting community sells in a much more personal way than Mattel or Wal-Mart or corporations.  The mind-set of handcrafter’s purchasers is very different as well.  I know if I’m thinking about buying a stuffed rabbit toy, made of organic cotton, from a stay-at-home-mom working a craft fair, my mind does not go to, ‘I wonder if she has safety certificates on these?’ If my child pulls a button off of that same rabbit toy and puts it in her mouth, I’m more worried about getting the button out of her mouth and getting on with my day.  I’m not going to think about, ‘I wonder if that button had lead in it?’”

“My main message to small batch manufacturers would be to think like big business.  And by that I don’t mean hiring lawyers, or consultants, or testing every piece of every item.  I mean do what you can, while still making a profit. Work with material suppliers who can provide you with documents for free, track all your materials, where you use them and whom you
sell to. No company can be 100% risk-free, or 100% compliant.  You need to look at your company and products, and do what you can to eliminate as much risk as you can.”

I love this advice. It’s real and it’s honest and, most importantly, it means you can keep going with your business. April added one further great piece of advice,

“Tracking labels is an area that people find very confusing and overwhelming. The intent of tracking labels is that end consumers can find you if they have safety or quality issues, and you can find them for the same reason.  You don’t have to have complicated batch codes at all.  If you are making unique items, you could literally number them 1, 2, 3, etc., and list your website or email.  Look at your item and think about how someone would contact you to talk about that specific item. What would they need to tell you three years later, or you to ask them, to answer their question about that button on the rabbit toy?”

To me that’s totally sound advice that we can all act on today, for free, to improve the level of safety of our children’s products, and even bring us a few steps closer to compliance.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about safety standards and compliance, but if you’d like to learn more I recommend starting with the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Neal’s Small Business Ombudsman website is a nice introduction to learning about testing. You can find Neal’s email there and connect with him on Twitter, too.

Take a look at The Handmade Toy Alliance, a lobbying organization that works on behalf of handmade toy makers. They actively lobby the House of Representatives and the Senate for CPSIA reform and also serve as a collective voice to the CPSC.

Join the CPSIA compliance team on Etsy. Neal is there, and so is April. Ask your questions and learn what others are
doing.

Just a note regarding posts on this blog in general, and this post in particular: I am not an attorney and nothing on this blog is to be treated as legal or compliance advice. You should consult an appropriately licensed legal advisor regarding any questions or concerns you may have related to your own business.

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If you’ve considered having your products tested, or if you have questionsa out the law, please feel free to ask them here. I’ll  forward any questions to Neal or April that I can’t answer myself. And if you’d like like to express an opinion about testing for handmade children’s products, go ahead! Let’s talk about safety.

Comments

  1. says

    Good information. Thanks. I bought poly beads thinking to make a series of sensory toys, and have some out for testing. But I also just made a bean bag baby for a family member and even though the child is three there is a younger family member and I am already worrying about it. So I know I will not be using this in my shop. I asked you before about safety eyes for little ones, and I likewise will not be using those. Softies for me are an add on, a cute extra and not worth the worry.

  2. Susan Kunze says

    I’m glad that you posted this, Abby. I was going to spend the next month using the wonderful felt that I’ve collected making adaptations of the wonderful stuffed animals from the pattern in Sew-It. My plan was to donate the toys as a holiday gift to the local home for battered women and children. Even though I embroider all the features and thus use only felt, fiberfill and DMC cotton, I believe I will skip this project and maybe even donate the toy and dollmaking books and patterns on my shelves to a library that will accept them and will concentrate on other media.
    It’s a shame that some of our laws are so far-reaching and ironic that only conscientious craftsmen will pay attention to them.
    The information that you’ve shared on this subject is disappointing, but I’m over doing things that bring me stress and worry, and I’m very grateful for the work and research you’ve put into this post.

  3. says

    Gasp! :) Not everyone is breaking the law! If you want to sell your products to shops or a legally running business, you must go the extra mile to become a legally running business yourself. If you’re not compliant the shop cannot carry your softies. Personal side note: my business has gone through all the steps and we did not have a terrible time of it. The Handmade Toy Alliance was a wonderful resource for us. Thanks for bringing up this important subject so people can discuss it and even know it exists!

  4. says

    That’s all very well for a US seller selling within the US on Etsy, but what happens, for example, if someone in Europe (with different safety laws) buys from a US seller, or vice versa? Whose safety standards do they have to comply with – the country of origin, or the country it’s going to?

  5. says

    I’d wondered about this. At times in craft and handmade goods fairs I see toys marketed for children that have buttons and other easily removed/pulled/bitten off parts, and there usually is no warning at all. I don’t buy them for those reasons and sometimes want to warn off other people from buying them as well…

  6. says

    I should say: use your common sense and don’t stress too much. A plastic eye is not the only thing in the house a child can choke on. You cannot remove all perils.
    I really don’t know why so much fuss is made of toys and so little of other things. What about the million soaps and candles scented like food for sale on Etsy and everywhere else? An intrepid infant will try to eat those, but nobody seems to worry about it.

  7. says

    Thanks to you, Abigail and for Neal for taking the time to review the toy testing regulations. But I am still wondering if you and Neal discussed the use of petrochemical fabric choices and child safety. For example, Washington state has banned soft vinyl lunchboxes because of the lead content in that fabric. Not many dolls are probably made from vinyl, but it can be bought off the bolt and makers who expect fabrics to be free of lead will not know this fabric is not regulated in the same way because it was not considered to be a toymaking preference. (Funny though, you can still sew your own kitchen and picnic goods from lead-infused vinyl.)
    The laws were certainly made with mass-produced and mainly finished imported goods in mind. I remember the big scare in 2008 when all toymakers went crazy with worry until they found out the fabrics were already tested before they hit the US market. It became a big non-issue as soon as they realized they weren’t being hunted and shut down.
    What disturbs me the most, however, is that while testing is mainly for lead and pthalates, poly fiberfill is STILL considered infant and child safe when it is composed of pthalates: polyethylene terepthalate. It is in the registry of the US Toxic Substances Control Act, and while many many tests have shown it to be inert for respiratory distress, the same abstracts state respiratory protection is required when manufacturing and working with poly fibers including poly fiberfill. In manufacturing polyfill, three known carcinogens are produced in excess of occupational safety limits. Even if the final product can be considered ‘safe’, its production pollutes water and air big time and compromises the health of workers who make it. It is flammable, can continue burning when the flame is put out, and the smoke from burning polyfill is highly toxic. Polyfill is not naturally antibacterial and is treated like other fibers mainly with Triclosan and nano silver colloids which create a great deal of polluted waste water.
    We’re being fed a load of garbage to be told poly fiberfill is a safe alternative to natural stuffing such as cotton, kapok, wool, and buckwheat. It may be considered acceptably inert by the time baby shoves it in his mouth, but making the stuff will always be a petrochemical polluting poisonous nightmare.

  8. April says

    Katy- the easy answer is BOTH. But ultimately, a producer has to comply with the regs of the country that the item will be going to.

  9. says

    It’s great to see this issue being discussed – so few people seem to realise that safety laws apply to small handmade sellers as well as the big businesses.
    The laws and regulations differ depending on what country you’re in, so if you’re not based in the US it really is worth finding out what applies locally – don’t just assume that it’s the same. Here in the UK/EU, for example, CPSIA certificates for fabric are not enough. There are extra tests for fabric and the finished product needs to be fully tested for safety (including fire safety) and fully documented. This Facebook Page offers great support for UK crafters broaching the minefield: https://www.facebook.com/groups/cesupportchatter/
    In response to Katy, my understanding was that toys need to comply with the safety rules in the country of origin, but I can’t find any reference to back this up. Does anyone else have a reference?

  10. says

    Ruth,
    Yes, thank you for bringing up the difference in safety regulations for toys in the UK. I recorded an excellent podcast interview with Dawn Treacher, a handmade toy maker who lives in the UK and complies with the safety regulations there. She goes into detail about how she does it and within the post I list the various Facebook pages where UK-based makers can turn for support: http://www.whileshenaps.com/2013/07/making-softies-kid-safe-a-conversation-with-dawn-treacher.html

  11. says

    Thank you so much for this post! I started my child safety product investigation by looking at the CPSIA website – then got frustrated by the amount of information and contacted a testing facility for information. Boy was that a wrong move. They gave me a quote of over $1,000 to test handmade bibs made of cotton, fleece and a plastic snap. I found this post, did some more research and eventually called Neil Cohen (I couldn’t believe he actually picked up the phone – figured I’d get an operator). He was extremely helpful and (very diplomatically) informed me that the testing facility would have had me do a whole bunch of unnecessary tests. Also, he recommended looking for CPSIA certified materials, especially if you are going to use anything that is not a natural fiber in your products (i’m looking for zippers and plastic snaps). However, you still have to make sure that you get the certificate of testing – not just an “assurance” that the items have met the guidelines. I’d suggest doing research and then if you have questions calling or emailing Neil. He was very helpful and seems to be a great advocate for small, handmade businesses!

  12. Steven M says

    Is there a need then to have liability insurance for those six items I might sell every month?
    If there is even a slight chance something might go wrong and a kid eats a painted part from a toy, the parents may file suit.

  13. Ian says

    Here in Europe I have been making home-made models from recycled materials such as cardboard and wood offcuts for about thirty-five years, a hobby developed in Africa where there were few toys available. Over this time these items were enjoyed by many generations and cost hardly anything. Obviously I made them as safe as possible because I didn’t want to kill my own children, grandchildren and their friends. Apart from the pleasure of creativity, all I wanted to do was make a few children happy. Occasionally I made the odd fiver selling things at craft fairs. Because of the new toy safety laws I have now had to give up. For anybody considering making anything for children under fourteen I would say don’t even think about it. Even if you can afford the necessary testing and can comply with all the other requirements (which I cannot since my toys are all one-offs and I have no idea who makes the raw materials), it is not worth the hassle. Sad, I know, but there it is. Needless to say my grandchildren are mortified.

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