Is CPSIA the New Fahrenheit 451?

February 15, 2009

Walter Olson over at City Journal and his blog, Overlawyered.com, has uncovered a frightening and probably unintended effect of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.  Children’s books made before 1985 are essentially being removed from the market.  Olson writes:

“under a law Congress passed last year aimed at regulating hazards in children’s products, the federal government has now advised that children’s books published before 1985 should not be considered safe and may in many cases be unlawful to sell or distribute. Merchants, thrift stores, and booksellers may be at risk if they sell older volumes, or even give them away, without first subjecting them to testing—at prohibitive expense. Many used-book sellers, consignment stores, Goodwill outlets, and the like have accordingly begun to refuse new donations of pre-1985 volumes, yank existing ones off their shelves, and in some cases discard them en masse.”

He continues:

“CPSIA imposed tough new limits on lead in any products intended for use by children aged 12 or under, and made those limits retroactive: that is, goods manufactured before the law passed cannot be sold on the used market (even in garage sales or on eBay) if they don’t conform…. Not until 1985 did it become unlawful to use lead pigments in the inks, dyes, and paints used in children’s books. Before then—and perhaps particularly in the great age of children’s-book illustration that lasted through the early twentieth century—the use of such pigments was not uncommon, and testing can still detect lead residues in books today. This doesn’t mean that the books pose any hazard to children. While lead poisoning from other sources, such as paint in old houses, remains a serious public health problem in some communities, no one seems to have been able to produce a single instance in which an American child has been made ill by the lead in old book illustrations—not surprisingly, since unlike poorly maintained wall paint, book pigments do not tend to flake off in large lead-laden chips for toddlers to put into their mouths.”

This doesn’t just hit used book-sellers hard, it also applies to any individual trying to sell a book on Ebay and even to public libraries.  We will have to discard countless classic children’s books, many of which are no longer in print, to avoid something that has never been shown to be harmful.

But don’t worry.  I’m sure we won’t actually burn the books.  It might produce harmful toxins!  Instead, I bet we are preparing a facility near Yuca Mountain to safely dispose of Make Way for Ducklings and Anne of Green Gables so those books will no longer harm our children.  Better that they should sit in front of the TV.

(edited to change photo)