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One Way to Deal with Lead in Children’s Products: Ban Kid’s Books

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When thousands of children's products, largely from China, were recalled 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.

This week, the staff of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a handy guide to the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) for "small businesses, resellers, crafters and charities." The CPSIA, signed into law last August, was intended to address lead content in products intended for children. Even the CPSC 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. 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 and the guide specifically includes books in its list of such products.  The guide does say, though, that the products that can be sold include "Children’s books printed after 1985 that are conventionally printed and intended to be read, as opposed to used for play." 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;
– Using "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 CPSC guide, used "vintage children’s books … sold as collector’s items" are exempt because they are 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 1980s 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. The Headmistress at The Common Room had a couple perceptive observations in a post that also itemizes the many classic books that could be removed from inventory destroyed because of this law:

Lead has to be ingested or inhaled to make you sick. If your kids are rolling book pages and smoking them, there is no law strong enough to protect that child from himself.

How many pages of the book does a kid have to eat in order to get elevated lead levels, and how many kids over four are likely to stick their books in their mouths and suck them down to pulp? Has there ever been a case of a child getting lead poisoning from a book?

I'll admit I am not familiar with any testimony or other evidence relating to 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 establishing a health hazard must rest with the agency, not a library or used book store.

No one wants to downplay the danger lead poses to children. But this isn't a situation where kids are eating lead paint chips off walls or sucking on toys made or coated with lead. If pre-1985 children's books are so dangerous, why aren't baby boomers like me who grew up 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 close to five decades with no ill effects (although some may claim they see a mental impact). It certainly seems that in a desire to respond to the lead scare from products imported from China, Congress again failed to grasp the ramifications of its legislation and an administrative agency isn't going 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. The bill passed the House 424-1 and the Senate 89-3.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.