Children’s books caught up in lead ban

When thousands of children’s products, largely from China, were removed from shelves because of lead content, Congress decided it had to take action. That action, however, may lead to children’s books printed before 1985 being removed from the shelves of used bookstores and libraries.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), signed into law last August, was intended to address lead content in products intended for children. In a guide issued this week, even the Consumer Product Safety Commission recognizes it is “a sweeping new law.” Among other things, beginning February 10, children’s products cannot be sold if they contain more than 600 parts per million total lead. According to the guide, sellers of used children’s products aren’t required to test their inventory before selling items but (and there’s always a but)… resellers can’t sell products that exceed the limit and “unless they have testing or other information to indicate the products being sold have less than the new limit [they] could face civil and/or criminal penalties.”

So what does this have to do with books? Under the CPSIA, a children’s product is one designed or intended primarily for children 12 years of age or younger. The guide includes books in its list of such products, although it says children’s books “printed after 1985 that are conventionally printed and intended to be read, as opposed to used for play” can be sold. Plainly, the CPSC believes the law applies to children’s books printed before 1985.

What, then, is a used book store to do if it has such a book? Here are the “practical” options, according to the CPSC:

       — Test the book;
       — Refuse to sell it, which means disposing of it if already in inventory;
       — Use “your best judgment” based on knowledge of the product; or,
       — Contact the manufacturer.

I can summarize it more easily: test or toss. Of course, there is one other option not in the CPSC’s list. According to the guide, used “vintage children’s books … sold as collector’s items” are exempt because they are not primarily intended for children. I’m guessing, though, that renaming the children’s book section “Collectibles” probably won’t cut it.

But the law may even reach into the shelves of our public and school libraries. In a February 3 letter to four U.S. Senators and Representatives who expressed concern about requiring third party testing of books, CPSC Commissioner Thomas Moore wrote:

Libraries are extremely concerned about the impact of the lead provision on the children’s books on their shelves. I believe that our staff has come up with a supportable “bright line” [the 1985 cutoff date] to guide libraries as to what books we will deem not to pose a problem and which ones should be sequestered until we get more information from the publishing and ink manufacturing industries. The book publishers have asserted that children’s books pose no problems, but we know that the ink used in children’s books prior to the 1980’s did contain lead.

We haven’t gotten the kind of information we need about all the components of children’s books to be able to issue them a blanket exemption. The industry has made assertions and done very limited testing, but the Act requires more, as it should, before we can exempt a children’s product from the lead content requirements of the law. We cannot act on the “everyone knows children’s books don’t contain lead” and “historically there has never been a problem with lead in children’s books” assertions, particularly when we now know that children’s books have indeed contained lead in the past.

(Emphasis in original.)

This all seems totally mind boggling. Assuming the ink in books published prior to 1985 did contain some lead, what is the method of exposure? Is it taking too deep a whiff of that book smell? Is it truly being a bookworm and eating the pages of the book? Is it the ink rubbing off on the hands? How many pages must be consumed or touched before it poses a health hazard? From a common sense standpoint, if these books are so dangerous, why aren’t baby boomers like me who grew with a book always in hand dying from lead poisoning? If it’s the ink that is the problem, then I’ve been absorbing lead for about five decades with no ill effects (although some may claim they see a mental impact).

I’ll admit I am not familiar with any evidence submitted regarding the presence of lead in children’s books or books as a whole. But it strikes me that to ban a product (and, yes, this is essentially banning books), the burden of proof must rest with the agency, not a library or used book store. No one wants to downplay the danger lead poses to children but the lead risk associated with books doesn’t seem at all comparable to eating lead paint chips off walls or sucking on toys made or coated with lead. It certainly seems that in a desire to show it was responding to lead in products imported from China, Congress again failed to grasp the ramifications of its legislation and an administrative agency isn’t willing to yield any power it’s been granted.

Oh, by the way, if you want to raise a stink with your U.S. Senator or Representative, good luck. Not only did the bill pass the House 424-1, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin was a co-sponsor of the legislation. The bill also sailed through the Senate 89-3 and both Sen. Tim Johnson and Sen. John Thune voted for it.

Any one of the strange laws we suffer is a compromise between a fad and a vested interest.

G.K. Chesterton, Fancies Versus Fads

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