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Lead astray

Caption
(Sandy Bressner – sbressner@nwherald.com)
Alex Nagy Jr., 12, rides his mini bike on a dirt track behind his Richmond home as his dad, Alex Nagy Sr., looks on. Mini bikes have been folded into a federal law that targeted lead in toys. Although the law was meant to ban toys that young children might put in their mouths, the mini bikes are affected because they are made for children 12 and younger. The bikes have lead in the battery and engine parts.

RICHMOND – Racing is in the blood of Alex Nagy’s family.

Nagy’s father turned him on to racing motorcycles. Nagy’s son, Alex Jr., has raced since he was 4. And Nagy’s daughter, Jamie, 19, also races.

But now the sport that Alex Nagy loves is under assault, the victim of a law meant to protect children from lead toys. The law has been applied to mini bikes and smaller ATVs, and that could mean that racing for 12-year-old Alex Jr. might be endangered.

“It’s definitely impacted us,” Alex Sr. said. “It’s difficult to buy parts, and you can’t buy bikes for kids 12 and under.”

Last year, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was signed into law by President Bush. Prompted by concerns over tainted products from China, the legislation strongly was supported by Republicans and Democrats. The law specifically targeted lead in toys.

However, the law also has been applied to mini bikes and small ATVs that are built for children 12 and younger. Like larger motorized vehicles, the mini bikes have lead in their batteries and in some engine parts.

The law was crafted with toys that young children might put in their mouths, a fact that has Nagy and the motorcycle industry chagrined.

“Kids are not licking the handlebars or batteries,” Nagy said. “They have gloves on. Goggles. A helmet. They do not come in contact with the bike. Usually it’s the adults who work on the bikes.”

For mini bike enthusiasts, the law and its fallout is an example of good intentions gone awry.

The bikes generally go between 25 mph and 30 mph. During a race, on a course with obstacles, speeds tend to top out at 20 mph, Nagy said.

It is a fun family sport, Nagy said. But he fears that the ban could be the end for young racers.

Nagy is one of Steven Frye’s biggest customers at SF Performance in Prairie Grove. Frye said that upward of 40 percent of his business could be affected by the ban. SF Performance modifies the bikes. And they sell after-market parts such as tires and there is the racing equipment and upkeep items, such as oil.

“This couldn’t come at a worse time,” Frye said. “It’s already slow. This is going to hurt my business even more.”

In the past, the smaller bikes, even though they were made for riders 12 and younger, sometimes were bought by adults who would modify them, or by teenagers who would ride them just for fun. No more. Manufacturers have ceased all sales because of the way the law has been interpreted by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

At Honda Northwest on Route 14 in Crystal Lake, the mini bikes no longer are on the sales floor. The store has put the bikes into a storage area.

“It really hurts the kids more than us,” said Jason Siegel, Honda Northwest general manager.

Mini bike sales are a small percentage of most dealer’s business. For Honda, the law primarily is affecting three models. But dealers also lose out on the sale of accessory items. The biggest issue for Siegel and other dealers is the fact that the law is being applied to something it was not meant to be applied to.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Siegel said.

Rich Carter, spokesman for 16th District Congressman Don Manzullo, R-Ill., said that the law clearly was not meant to be applied to smaller ATVs and mini bikes. Carter said language in the law specifically stated that exemptions should be considered for some products.

However, the Consumer Product Safety Commission on March 11 issued its final rule on the matter and focused on the wording of the law. The commission wrote that, based on the law, it must determine that lead from a product or material will not “result in the absorption of any lead into the human body.”

The commission wrote that “Had Congress not included use of the word ‘any’, the Commission ... would have had the authority to have considered whether the requirement could be met if there were some low amount of absorption of lead.”

“Clearly, this was not the intent of the bill,” said Jonathan Lipman, spokesman for 8th District Congresswoman Melissa Bean, D-Ill. “We were aware of this situation and awaiting the final rule. Now that the rule has been issued, we’ll be working with other congressional offices to see if there’s any solution.”

Two Montana legislators have taken up the issue.

Last week, Senate Democrat John Tester introduced the Common Sense in Consumer Product Safety Act of 2009. If approved, the bill would exempt vehicles designed for children 7 years old and older. House Republican Dennis Rehberg has introduced similar legislation.

For now, the small ATVs and mini bikes will remain unsold at dealerships. And sport enthusiasts such as Nagy have little recourse but to wait for a solution.

“You hope that the politicians are elected to represent you,” Nagy said. “It doesn’t seem like that sometimes. It’s kind of sad.”

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