Protecting Kids from “Dangers” Like Rhinestones. And Books.

Hi Readers! Remember during the summer I ran a post by businessman Rick Woldenberg about the wacky new Consumer Product Safety law? Here’s a little of what he said:

Readers of Free-Range Kids may not be surprised to learn that Congress has enacted far-reaching legislation to save your children from the dangers involved in reading an old book, riding a new bike or even using a Barbie pen. That is, if after using these items, they generally eat them. 

Feel safer already? The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act  became law on August 14, 2008 and it dramatically changes the way we regulate children’s product safety.  After several toys from China were recalled in 2007/8 for high levels of lead, Congress wanted to do something – anything — so it did. And went way overboard.

Until then, the Consumer Product Safety Commission focused only on products that posed an actual threat to your child’s safety – things like faulty car seats, or toys with small parts that could break off and cause choking. Under the new law, Congress imposes arbitrary standards that require the manufacturers of pens, shoes, t-shirts, ATVs, bikes, books, backpacks and toys to “prove” the safety of their products, and label them a new way.

 It sounds like a good idea to prove your product is safe before it hits the shelves. But because the law now covers every single product made for children up to age 12, many products well-known for being safe –  books! socks! — are being regulated for the very first time. Huge wasteful costs are being imposed on all of these products.

Think about it: Less than 0.01% of all children’s products are recalled in a typical year. But now the other 99.99% will have to prove their safety first.

That law lead to horrors like thrift shops throwing out their pre-1985 children’s books because they couldn’t prove that the ink inside those books was lead-free. Really!

So finally Congress is holding a hearing on the law this  Thursday, Sept. 10. You’d think our elected offiicials would call in some scientists, or even parents, who could pretty effectively argue that this law covers  way too many products that really are not harming children. Things like rhinestones on T-shirts, and the rocks studied in geology class. (Not radium. Rocks!) 

The problem is not just that this law is ridiculously all-encompassing. It’s that that the law gives the Consumer Product Safety Commission zero  flexibility to exercise judgment: anything that may have lead in it, even if the agency ITSELF believes there is absolutely no health risk, is still banned. Calling Kafka!

Unfortunately, the Committee inexplicably is planning to call exactly one witness to this hearing: the chairwoman of the Consumer Products Safety Commission herself. That excludes, obviously, folks like Rick, a maker of educational toys, and folks like me, a mom who argues that as much as I adore safety we are going overboard trying to protect children from unbelievably remote dangers. Including the dangers of eating books and socks and rocks.

The whole Free-Range philosophy is that we cannot protect children from everything without sealing them inside a tower (which poses its own dangers, agreed?). And to protect kids from old books — sheesh. Where would I have been without my dog-eared, yellowing copy of “Little Women” growing up? A book I loved but somehow managed not to eat?

If you’d like to write an email protesting this law or lack of public input, please send it to housecpsiahearing@cox.net.  Rick says he will make certain it’s submitted. For additional information and to see Rick’s letter go to http://tiny.cc/DIRiy

Thanks — Lenore (off to munch on a delicious chunk of granite)

25 Responses

  1. What, not munching on a lovely piece of limestone instead? As a Neverending Story fan, Lenore, that last comment begs this response: Rockbiter!

    Regarding your post, holding a hearing on the law requiring a single, lone witness to testify before the committee seems like a waste of everyone’s time. If the committee were actually serious about debating the (dubious) merits of this law, then they would be calling experts (note the plural) to examine the various angles, pros and cons involved. That fact that they’re not engaging with spokespeople for all parties familiar with and affected by this law and instead are just calling the chairwoman of the CPSC to testify, sends a signal that these hearings are to be nothing more than lip-service to give the appearance of “debating” the merits of the law.

    As someone who’s donated a LOT of books to charity services over the years, I’d hate to think that a number of those books have been chucked in the trash bin (or at least recycled) when their only defect is that they were printed pre-1985. Those books are a danger because kids MIGHT eat them? Seriously? The risk of getting a papercut has got to be higher than the risk of getting lead-poisoning from eating those pages (honestly, how many pages would a kid have to eat to get lead poisoning from the ink? Is there a difference between fully illustrated and text-only books? I’m rather curious to know if there are any numbers on this). I know kids have a tendency to put things in their mouths – my kid brother was a notorious play-do eater (blech!), but that was why he wasn’t allowed to play with the stuff unless there was an adult present to keep an eye on him. Or is that just too common-sense to work?

  2. The law is crippling to small businesses, “stay-at-home mom” crafters, artisans, and those looking to save by being thrifty. And yet companies like Mattel, one of the worst offenders, are allowed to police themselves by using testing methods of their choice… Meanwhile the lady who makes toddler hair bows has to retest every time she changes a spool of ribbon. Hello, Big Brother. Revise and wake up. Not only that, get off your free trade high horse and make some adjustments to the law that actually support AMERICAN small business with AMERICAN-made components resulting in AMERICAN products for AMERICAN kids. We’re told to buy American and then preventing people from making the stuff that allows us to do so.

  3. As a parent of two children with special needs that have high levels of toxins in their system due to everyday exposures, I have a take on this. I am all for making toys and other things safe. If you build a toy today, there’s no reason to use lead-based paint. If you built a toys years and years ago, it was pretty much your only choice. So, just make sure people know there might be lead or other toxins in older toys and move on with life. I see this as such a waste of time and resources. There are REAL dangers out there to our children that are 100% being ignored by these same “concerned” politicians. But let’s make sure to not sell a 1972 copy of The Pokey Little Puppy. Eek, the horrors. While we put real toxins into our kids with little to no notice, we freak out over these ridiculous things. Wake up and spend that money on real issues. Don’t turn over rocks, dig down 15 feet, get out your flashlight, and pray to find an issue you can deal with. We have real ones out there that are so much bigger and of more concern. We don’t need to go digging for things to be worried about, especially things that don’t matter.

  4. I remember chewing on my catechism class book as a child. It tasted just like the Communion wafers.

    After getting rid of all the old books and the libraries close, the complaint will be about what the children read on the internets.

  5. @ Carrie –

    Excellent point about how this sort of law disproportionately affects the small businessperson when compared to big businesses. Large companies like Mattel can absorb those increases in cost better than the small business owner, but more importantly, those large businesses can also absorb any FINES levied against them for any breaches in protocol, not to mention, they can afford the legal fees to fight any fines imposed on them, so they’re far more likely to let things slide by. Small businesses, by contrast, have a fraction of those financial resources and therefore a vested interest in abiding by any set restrictions, but may still bankrupt themselves in the attempt to conform to those restrictions or argue for legal exemptions to those restrictions. Trusting a large business whose main concern is profit to police itself is like trusting the proverbial fox to guard the hen house: not only will the fox inevitably have chicken for dinner, it will most likely be clever enough to get away with the crime because that’s its nature. The government wants to protect kids from defective toys made from potentially toxic materials? Quit giving these large companies that keep screwing up a free pass – levy heavy, prohibitive fines, make them stick and provide actual, working oversight instead of mere lipservice.

  6. […] fine hearing/My friends, this is… Rep. Waxman’s plan for a dissent-free panel this Thursday (Sept. […]

  7. That’s right, it does hurt small business, which is why large companies like Mattel actually lobbied *for* the law.
    http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/columns/TimothyCarney/Washington-toy-story-shows-why-regulation-helps-the-big-guys38690727.html

  8. Mattel (whose Fisher-Price brand had lead-coated Dora toys recalled!) is EXEMPT from the third party testing rule because they have convinced the CPSC that their in house testing is immune from pressure from the company. (uh wha?) oh they have a “firewall” between testing and the rest of the company.

    LA Times story on Mattel’s exemption from the rules.

  9. Well that tears it – I’ve got a couple of baby shower/kid gifts to get and Mattel products are officially off the list! Vote with your wallet, folks! Your dollars are what really matter to big business, not your health.

  10. To add insult to injury, the ban on all pre-1985 books for children 12 and under is NOT because they have lead in them in large enough levels to enter a child’s blood stream.
    Risk assessment is actually deliberately written OUT of the CPSIA. Those books are banned because SOME books used SOME leaded inks in SOME illustrations, SOMETIMES. The vast majority of books have no lead in them at all at any level, but you have to be able to PROVE that negative through the use of expensive third party testing- which, by the way, destroys the book, making it a moot point.
    Furthermore, even if an occasional book may, rarely, have measurable levels of lead in the ink, that link becomes part of the substrate, and saliva doesn’t leach it out anyway- not to mention that books for 12 year olds are treated precisely the same as books for 2 year olds, as though the average 12 year old sucks his books (and socks, and licks his dresser and bites his shoes and chows down on his jacket zipper…).

    Mattel did not really lobby for the bill, the Wall Street Examiner notwithstanding. They lobbied for exceptions and protections for them, just like small businesses lobbed for exceptions to protect THEIR business. PIRG, Public Citizen, and other Naderite groups lobbied for the bill and take full credit for all its most noxious elements.

    I am angry at the exception made for third party testing for Mattel, but I hold the CPSC and Congress more responsible for that than I do Mattel. I cannot really blame them for fighting to protect their business from the encroachment of a nanny agency at the behest of some nanny lobbyists.

    I want an exception made for pre-1985 books, too.

  11. What is sad is that this also extended to kids motocross bikes… so the little motorcycles that kids would ride in motorized dirt bike competitions? Resulted in some lawsuits against stores that sold them as well as some stores refusing to carry them.

    They’ve had to re-label these bikes as for adults (even though they’re probably 18 inches tall) because, guess what… engines contain lead! *gasp*

    I mean, it’s understandable. I go in and gnaw on my car’s engine all the time. Tasty.

  12. Sigh. Lenore once again expresses her indignant outrage about the Urban Legend about the banning of Ye Olde Books.

    This time she even links to a supporting article on the Internets (so you know it’s gotta be true!) – without mentioning the fact that it’s an opinion piece from a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute (“All government regulation is BAAAD”).

    Look, just because some thrift stores overreacted and tossed old inventory, doesn’t mean that the law was requiring them to do so. Even if some “expert” with an agenda might claim otherwise.

    I think it’s valid to point out that the regulation is odious for small businesses and home-crafters, but is it really necessary to use specious arguments?

  13. I have to say, as a 15-year-old, I do sometimes chew my zips or the cloth tags attached to them… I’m a compulsive fiddler, sue me.

    But seriously, books!!! That’s just wrong.

  14. WADR, Leonore, you need to start researching better before flipping out. Like Stepan said, this is an urban legend. It seriously detracts from your public credibility every time you overreact/react to something that isn’t real. It’s like the blogger who cried wolf.

  15. If the book ban is an urban legend, why have I heard librarians at a school library and my local public library system talk about having to go through shelves and pull all the books before a certain date? Wouldn’t they have access to correct knowledge?

  16. @Stepan, mammatiamat
    Snopes may be considered a reasonably reliable source, but only when you understand the full arguments on both sides. The CPSC press release linked to from the Snopes article clearly states that the CPSC will not impose penalties on anyone selling “an ordinary children’s book printed after 1985”. This is a clear indicator that books printed BEFORE 1985 will need to be tested if one is to avoid the treat of penalties. Reading many of the comments on Leonore’s post it is clear that this of concern to people, pre-1985 books are still out there!

    Further, the CPSC states that manufacturers and importers will not need to test products (for the first year of the legislation) but still must meet the standard. if a product is found not to meet the standard then the person or company is infringing. This sounds like a gamble many wont be willing to take.

    What would be nice, but is not stated, is that if an account of the individual components of product shows they have all been certified (the paint and rope and rhinestones you use in the making of your product) then the product itself is certifiable without expensive/destructive testing. The effect of this allowance would shift the responsibility for testing upstream, but upstream is where greater economies of scale exist and where testing costs are more easily absorbed.

  17. NPR has joined the insanity. They ran a story on lead in toys this weekend (Weekend Edition Saturday, Sept 5, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112558103) which includes this gem:

    “Another product, a hot-pink CD case purchased at Dollar Discount in Newark, Calif., was branded with a name many families know and trust: Disney. It featured the cast of the popular movie High School Musical. Test results showed the zipper contained six times the legal lead limit.”

    ‘scuse me, but what child of any age is ingesting the _zipper_ of a CD case, let alone children in the target market for CDs and HS musical.

    Shame on you, NPR and Scott Simon.

  18. Here is the letter I sent:
    I have a comment regarding the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. PLEASE do not waste any more hard-earned tax payer dollars on this ridiculous piece of legislation. PLEASE stop trying to make American citizens feel fearful in order to spend more of our money making laws that make us feel safe. I am alarmed that this was created to supposedly protect American children, yet the American public and American parents seemingly have not been consulted to see if we WANT the additional protection. I feel terrible for any American manufacturers of toys who will have to spend more money and jump through more hoops to prove their products are safe. Not only have American tax dollars been spent on this Act, but now we will also end up paying MORE money for the same products, because the manufacturers will need to charge more money for the same products due to additional safety standards. How many more small companies such as these need to go out of business until the government will be happy that things are “safe”. We ARE safe; stop trying to make us feel like we should be on red alert all the time.

  19. I’m glad we can still get old/handmade items for our kids here in Canada without them having to be tested… for now, anyway. I’m hoping that after the trouble with this act in the states, it won’t ever become an issue. It makes me sad to think of the great handmade stuff people in the US will have to stop selling online because they can’t afford the testing, though.

    Does anyone know if it would be possible for people to continue selling this stuff (hair bows, handmade dolls, wooden toys, even pre-1985 books) if it were labelled “not for use by children* (*per CPSIA)”? It’s up to the end consumer who actually get to play with the toys or read the books, right?

    Just wondering.

  20. Stepan and others, follow Rick Woldenburg’s blog. He’s been the answer man for this entire fiasco. This is truth!

  21. Oh dear….well it’s a good thing I have invested in bubble worlds for my children. Now if only I can get my 9 year old to quit chewing on her bra straps long enough to get her into the darn thing! And don’t even get me started on what my 7 year old is doing…..What is this world coming to????

  22. This is most certainly NOT an urban legend.

    In fact, CPSC Commissioner Thomas Moore explained to libraries and book sellers that books before 1985 would need to be ‘sequestered’ from children.

    In fact, Rep. Waxman specifically instructed the CPSC NOT to exempt books.

    In fact, the CPSC specifically said that libraries could not be exempted on the basis that they don’t sell books because they do distribute them, AND they said they could not exempt any books printed with some method other than four color printing, with staples, with spiral or comb binding, with metallic parts. Neither will they exempt ‘vintage’ books carried by libraries. See here for more:
    http://heartkeepercommonroom.blogspot.com/2009/08/cpsc-has-new-ruling-out.html

    Snopes was totally unreliable on this issue- so egregiously so that I will always need a more reliable second source backing them up before I believe them again.

    See here:
    http://overlawyered.com/2009/02/snopes-and-cpsia/

    Seriously- if you don’t read anything else, read that devastating critique of Snopes’ stance here. They actually admit that their article up on the website is NOT comprehensive and doesn’t even address the larger issues- but they don’t care. Click through the link in their own article and see how what they link to is quite different from what they say.

    http://overlawyered.com/2009/02/cpsia-chronicles-february-13/

    http://www.1000markets.com/blog_posts/2494

    Rick Woldenberg has been wonderful on this issue. So has Walter Olson at Overlawyered..

    I know people who first hear about this law or only get thier info from the late, lamented Snopes can’t believe it’s as bad as people are saying, but it actually really is that bad.

  23. @Mrs Embers
    I can’t find the exact section where it is explained, having strange problems opening PDF documents from the CPSC today, but I recall reading yesterday that a directive label will not suffice, there is some form of theoretical legal test (the details of which I cannot recall) along the lines of “if an average adult would consider the product to have been designed or sold for the use of children”.

    It wasn’t clear to me that if you had say, a first edition of a Beatrix Potter book, which, while made before 1985 and intended for use by children, though now is worth $$$ and therefore is now not something you would normally give a child to use, whether that would need testing or not.

    I might point out here that your CPSC has a section on their website where consumers can inform the organisation of their opinion on consumer safety issues. If everyone who is concerned that the CPSC is over-governing spoke out here maybe this would have an impact.

  24. Mrs. Embers, the short answer is no, labeling not for the use of children isn’t going to offer a seller enough protection.

    Long answer found in CPSC documents about how the CPSC determines if a product is for children or not- and labeling has little to do with it. If other people might use it for kids, it is a kid’s product. If it’s a color that would appeal to kids, it’s a kid’s product (there are actually colors more likely to slap you with regulations than others). and so forth.
    http://heartkeepercommonroom.blogspot.com/2009/01/definition-of-childrens-product.html

    As for books, the CPSC has already said that the law doesn’t apply to books which by virtue of their age AND price would not be presumed to be used by children. Cloth Dolls and stuffed animals are pretty much predestined to be kids’ products under the CPSC.

    So a ten dollar 1980 edition of Beatrix Potter isn’t legal just because you call it vintage. A 100 dollar 1912 edition (I forget what date would be the earliest for BP) would be okay.

  25. Thanks for a great site. The information and thought you have put into this is fantastic. I’ll bookmark you and return🙂

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