By Jim Spencer
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
The law was meant to keep children from poisoning themselves by sucking on toys and jewelry containing lead.
So Scott Wine had a hard time figuring out how it ended up applying to snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.
"I never expect to see a child gnawing on a brake line," said Wine, chief executive of Medina, Minn.-based Polaris Industries Inc., Minnesota's largest maker of off-road vehicles.
Wine and others in his industry won a three-year battle last week with final passage of a bill that exempts child-sized snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles from lead limits set out in the 2008 Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.
The attempt to limit lead in children's products grew principally from the death of a 4-year-old Minnesota boy who swallowed a lead charm plucked from a pair of sneakers. But as the wheels of federal regulation turned, critics claimed the lead limits unintentionally threatened the off-road vehicle industry.
Applying lead limits to off-road vehicles made for children was absurd, Wine and others in the industry argued, because the materials containing lead were enclosed in engines and brake systems.
Wine said his company had to stop selling child-sized vehicles while it spent time and money making sure it met the lower lead standards.
"Recently, we had to put another halt in production when we found that a (parts) supplier had let in material with a higher level of lead," Wine said.
Collectively, Polaris, Arctic Cat Inc. and others in the off-road vehicle industry spent hundreds of thousands of dollars since 2009 lobbying to escape a lead limit of 100 parts per million in children's products.
"I just hope the ATV industry works as hard to prevent injuries and deaths as they did to get themselves exempt from this lead provision," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for the Consumer Federation of America.
Weintraub and advocates from the Consumers Union and Public Citizen said the off-road vehicle exemption became a legislative trade-off to save more important parts of the consumer safety bill, such as third-party testing requirements and a public database of product complaints.
But they also admitted that the main safety risk for children from off-road vehicles comes from kids riding adult-sized machines, something the new consumer protection law might have unintentionally increased had it not been changed.
That twist and the fact that lead elements in electronic devices had already been exempted from the law left Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar fighting to fix a consumer product safety bill that she had originally championed.
Klobuchar, a Democrat, proposed lead limits on children's products as the result of the 2006 death of Jarnell Brown, the 4-year-old from Minneapolis who died after swallowing a lead charm.
The senator said conference committee changes altered her legislative definitions of children's products and the ages of youngsters covered in the act. The changes took the age up to 12 from 7 and removed language that said lead limits should not apply to "inaccessible parts."
"This was all about jewelry and kids sucking on jewelry," Klobuchar said. "It was about toddlers who had access to little toys with lead paint on them."
Last week's passage of the bill to exempt off-road vehicle makers from the lead standards was a victory for common sense, she said, not big business. The bill, which had passed the House of Representatives earlier, was adopted by the Senate by unanimous consent.
"It was actually a great example of Congress realizing a change had to be made," Klobuchar said. "There were all good intentions here. But this went too far."