Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fahrenheit 621.43

Remember CPSIA, the gift that keeps on giving?

Some libraries are beginning to worry that they may have to start pulling children's books published before the mid-1980s:
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Could a vintage, dog-eared copy of "The Cat in the Hat" or "Where the Wild Things Are" be hazardous to your children?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has raised that possibility in urging the nation's libraries to take children's books printed before 1986 off their shelves while the federal agency investigates whether the ink contains unsafe levels of lead.

Few, if any, libraries are complying, and many librarians are ridiculing the recommendation as alarmist. Even the nation's premier medical sleuths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, say any danger from lead in children's books is slight.

"We're talking about tens of millions of copies of children's books that are perfectly safe. I wish a reasonable, rational person would just say, `This is stupid. What are we doing?'" said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association's Washington office. [...]

CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said libraries can safely lend any children's book printed in 1986 or later, by which time a growing body of regulations had removed lead from printer's ink. But the commission still must study the lead content in books printed before 1986. The CPSC delayed until next year the lead testing required as part of the law.

Until the testing is done, the nation's more than 116,000 public and school libraries "should take steps to ensure that the children aren't accessing those books," Wolfson said. "Steps can be taken to put them in an area on hold until the Consumer Product Safety Commission can give further guidance."

But Jay Dempsey, a health communications specialist at the CDC, said lead-based ink in children's books poses little danger.

"If that child were to actually start mouthing the book—as some children put everything in their mouths—that's where the concern would be," Dempsey said. "But on a scale of one to 10, this is like a 0.5 level of concern."

And some libraries are taking this to heart:

Sheketoff said she heard of just two libraries that started to restrict access to children's books last month. One roped off the children's section; the other covered children's books with a tarp. Both libraries, which she declined to identify, stopped after being contacted by the association, she said.

"Communities would have a stroke if public libraries started throwing out hundreds and hundreds of books just because they came out before a certain copyright date," said Margaret Todd, librarian for the Los Angeles County system, which has 89 branches and about 3 million children's books. Todd said she expects the commission to develop reasonable standards that protect children.

Nathan Brown, a lawyer for the library association, said libraries should not even be subject to the law. He argued that Congress never wanted to regulate books and that libraries do not sell books and thus are not subject to the consumer products law.

I think Mr. Brown has the right idea, here. How did a law that was supposed to keep unsafe imported lead-painted brand new toys produced in factories by people making pennies an hour and working, sometimes, in unsafe conditions end up getting targeted at used bookstores, children's clothing resale shops, libraries, small home-based craft businesses and others who were never part of the problem in the first place?

Maybe there really is an agenda out there to remove the old books and ideas, to force consumers to buy everything new instead of saving a little money by recycling gently used children's goods, to shut down home-based businesses, and to confiscate those lovely old copies of The Velveteen Rabbit from the library, replacing it with copies of King and King and Heather Has Two Mommies. Or maybe this is just the law of unintended consequences at work once again.

Unintended consequences have a way of getting out of hand, though, as Ray Bradbury once examined in his book about removing books from society. In Bradbury's tale, it wasn't censorship that was responsible for the removal of books, but a culture that became absorbed in television and immersed in trivia; Wikipedia's entry puts it this way:

Over the years, the novel has been subject to various interpretations, primarily focusing on the historical role of book burning in suppressing dissenting ideas. Bradbury has stated that the novel is not about censorship; he states that Fahrenheit 451 is a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature, which leads to a perception of knowledge as being composed of "factoids", partial information devoid of context, e.g., Napoleon's birth date alone, without an indication of who he was.

We are seeing what happens when Congress decides to govern by "factoids," thus: Fact: lead is bad for you. Fact: lead is especially bad if it is ingested. Fact: Children ingest lead. Fact: lead is found in paint. Fact: some lead paint ends up on things that are sold to children. Conclusion: ban lead paint in children's goods.

But there are other facts, such as the fact that lead in the environment and especially in old house paint is a bigger threat to children than trace amounts found on parts of toys or clothing that they're not supposed to put in their mouths in the first place (e.g., lead paint on the inside of a sealed toy block or on a small blue rectangle on the back of the heel of the child's shoe) and the fact, as mentioned by the article, that children rarely put paper books into their mouths and would have to ingest a large number of pages before the lead would make them ill--eating that much paper would probably be a much bigger threat to their health than the minute amounts of lead that theoretically could be present. These competing facts, though, can't really be reduced to sound bites, and make it awfully easy for Congress people to play that Washington-style game of "eating each other alive," to wit: "Senator, is it true that you voted against banning lead paint in children's products? Senator, do you want children to die? Do you hate children?" etc.

So nervous librarians cordon off the children's section while pushy officials sternly instruct them to remove (for hazardous waste disposal) the old classic children's books reposing in quiet majesty on the few shelves where books are still collected (but there are plenty of kids' DVDs, ma'am, right over here!). And the law of unintended consequences takes us one step closer to a dystopian future not altogether unlike the one forged in the powerful furnace of Bradbury's imagination.


Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

I think in order to get any unsafe amount of lead really into/onto a kid would take some effort. Maybe the libraries can just make parents sign a waiver that if their child gets lead poisoning after licking the library books, they won't be held responsible.

You know it's amazing all you people born before the mid-1980s survived...

Anonymous said...

Coming from a very large family, as the oldest sibling, I do not recall any of us gnawing on books. Mint-flavored paste was a different story, not that I ever imbibed but I did hear tell about the taste.

With the lead-based paint, I could see where particulates from indoor paint chips might present a hazard in close quarters, as well as exposure to aerosolized lead additives to prevent 'knocking' in gasoline.

And, as kids, asbestos surrounded the stove to reduce fire danger.

But, 1. How has paint from library books affected citizens so far? Who has been affected and how many book pages were consumed? 2. How much lead is in these childrens' books; are all of them to be painted with the same brush, so to speak? and, 3. Who came up with the ridiculous 'solution'--I mean, is there any 'scientific' basis to it?