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The law that stole Christmas

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

It was a time of near-hysteria for parents of small children.

Mattel recalled Polly Pocket and Batman action figures en masse. Parents threw out anything with the “Made in China” label, fearful that babies were gnawing on lead-laden toys.

In August 2008, Congress responded nearly unanimously, passing the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. The law set new, lower levels for lead and phthalates in consumer products and required third-party testing of products designed for children.

“It is such a good and important bill and zeroes right in on the problem,” said Bruce Kinney. “It had the unintended consequence of severely restricting small charitable organizations.”

Kinney is a member and membership chairman of DuPage Woodworkers, one of those small, charitable organizations, which every year encourages members to craft and donate wooden Christmas toys to less fortunate children.

Last year, the group donated 735 handcrafted toys to children. Unless there are changes made to the law, they will be unable to donate any in the future.

“The law says we can’t give anything away without third-party testing,” said Jerry Johnson, secretary of DuPage Woodworkers. “This year, we’re not allowed to finish them.”

Santa’s St. Charles annex

Last year, the Fox Valley Woodworkers Club donated about 700 wooden toys to poor and needy kids. Almost half those were made by James Hildreth in the basement of his St. Charles home.

Santa Claus’ workshop must look something like Hildreth’s work area. There are boxes of wood scraps of all shapes and sizes; giant tools to cut, sand and drill; and a miniature train covering half the basement. On his workbench Monday were a series of hippopotamuses, ranging from a finished product that will chomp-chomp-chomp when pulled along the carpet, to rows of unpainted heads and bodies.

The shelves around the corner dance with possibilities. They’re filled with yellow dump trucks with scoops that work, bright green grasshoppers that stretch their legs, deep brown toasters with wooden bread that pops out.

In his top year, Hildreth, 87, made 400 toys to donate. Last year, now that he’s slowing down, he made 300. He works on them when and for however long he wants — a little more since the death of his wife.

And other than grandkids or an occasional neighbor, he never meets any of the kids who end up with these beautiful pieces.

“It’s something that I can do that’s successful,” he says. “I know the kids love it. And it occupies a lot of my time.”

Hildreth never works from a pattern — not just because he’s an expert craftsman but because the materials he uses are donated. He makes whatever will fit the wood he has on hand. That’s part of the problem.

Hildreth has been told not to paint this year’s donations because the club can’t show through independent testing that the toys are free of lead-based paint. Besides making the toys more visually appealing, the paint also helps cover up some of problems caused by donated materials.

“That hides a whole lotta sin,” said Mike Madden, board member at large of the Fox Valley Woodworkers Club.

Waiver expiration

DuPage Woodworkers has been producing toys for this Christmas season under a temporary waiver that expires in February. Next year, the group will be barred from giving out toys without first having them tested.

Woodworking hobby magazines have pegged prices for third-party testing as high as $30,000 for 80 items. Adding to the potential cost is that the same toy, if made by different manufacturers — like those wood donors — must be tested separately.

The local woodworkers have taken their case to their congresswoman.

“This law was intended to keep kids safe from lead in mass-produced toys, not to impose heavy-handed regulations on groups like the DuPage Woodworkers Club who hand-craft wooden toys for needy children,” said U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Hinsdale. “This is a perfect example of overzealous federal rule makers not listening to common sense.”

As a result of a meeting with woodworkers a couple weeks back, Biggert decided to co-sponsor H.B. 968, which amends the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.

In its current form, H.B. 968 will:

Allow otherwise banned goods to be sold second-hand at garage sales, resale shops or in online auctions.

Delay by six months each required step in the allowed lead level in children’s products.

Stop requiring manufacturers to have finished products tested by third parties if all the components of the product have been tested.

Those provisions don’t quite solve the DuPage Woodworkers’ problems — they still have a tough time finding components that have already been safety-tested. But the bill, which is sitting in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, still has plenty of time for revisions.

“Our children’s safety comes first, but there’s no reason the Consumer Product Safety Commission cannot strike the right balance, keep toys safe and let our local clubs continue their crafts,” Biggert said.

Johnson is hoping to see a couple changes, either exemptions for very small manufacturers like the individual craftsmen that make up the Woodworkers, or the creation of a database of certified components, like glues and paints, that are known to be safe.

“We’re not at all intent on having the law repealed, just in some modifications to make it more worthy,” said Johnson.

Staff writer Matt Hanley contributed to this report.

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