Monday, January 12, 2009

Congress bans kids from libraries?

New safety law may prohibit children under 12 from libraries – or make many books illegal
By LISSA HARRIS | January 9, 2009

Is it possible that Congress has just inadvertently turned millions of children’s books into contraband? At the moment, anything seems possible with regard to the sprawling, 62-page Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), passed this past August with overwhelming margins in both the House (424-1) and the Senate (89-3).

The CPSIA, intended to keep lead out of toys, may well also keep books out of libraries, says Emily Sheketoff, associate executive director of the American Library Association.

“We are very busy trying to come up with a way to make it not apply to libraries,” said Sheketoff. But unless she succeeds in lobbying Capitol Hill for an exemption, she believes libraries have two choices under the CPSIA: “Either they take all the children’s books off the shelves,” she says, “or they ban children from the library.”

On February 10, the new law gets teeth. After that day, all products for children under 12 — books, games, toys, sports equipment, furniture, clothes, DVDs, and just about every other conceivable children’s gadget and gewgaw — must be tested for lead, and fall below a new 600 part-per-million limit, or face the landfill. Thanks to a September 12 memo from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the lead limit applies not only to new products, but also to inventory already on store shelves.

“Under this new regime, you are suspect until proven safe,” says Allan Adler, the American Association of Publishers’ vice president for legal and governmental affairs.

As the February 10 deadline approaches, the CPSIA has been causing increasing consternation — and, at times, hysteria — among makers and sellers of children’s products, who are just beginning to realize the financial and logistical nightmare they face in trying to comply. Lead testing promises to be expensive — from several hundred to several thousand dollars per test, depending on the product. And each batch of each item must be tracked and tested, making compliance brutally expensive for items with small runs.

Historically, books have been considered more dangerous to read than to eat. Regardless, a memo from the CPSC, issued the day before Christmas Eve, explicitly quashed any hope that books might escape the new law. To make matters worse, even publishers that have already had their products tested for lead will be forced to retest. In the same memo, existing test results based on “soluble lead” — a measure of whether lead will migrate out of a product — were rejected by the CPSC because they did not measure “total lead content.”

The CPSC has not issued any ruling on whether libraries, schools, and other institutions that loan — rather than sell — books will be subject to the law. Without such clear guidance, says Adler, schools and libraries should assume they have to comply.

“If [the CPSC is] going to say that we’re being alarmist,” says Adler, “that’s fine, as long as they provide an explanation that we can understand and rely on. That’s what’s been missing from this entire discussion.”

Regardless of whether libraries and schools are affected, the CPSIA is poised to take a massive bite out of the book industry. Large retailers are beginning to demand that publishers comply, even in advance of the law’s deadline. This Wednesday, sent a general letter informing its vendors that, if they did not certify their products by January 15, the items would be returned at the sellers’ expense.

Like their peers in the toy and garment industries, many sellers of children’s books are just beginning to try to understand how the CPSIA will affect their businesses.

“All of us are totally in the dark,” says Terri Schmitz, owner of the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline. “I can’t make a decision, because I don’t know what the regulations are. We’re all sort of in limbo here.”

Libraries may yet escape unscathed. The CPSIA is changing rapidly as the CPSC scrambles to clarify the confusing lead law before it goes into effect. Thrift stores, consignment shops, and other used-goods stores got a partial reprieve yesterday in a hastily drafted CPSC memo: While resellers still face stiff civil and criminal penalties if they sell lead-contaminated items, used goods will not have to be tested for lead.

In lieu of actual testing, the memo urged resellers to “pay special attention to certain product categories,” like jewelry and painted toys, which are “likely to have lead content.”

Which prompts the obvious question: If other children’s products aren’t likely to contain lead, why is the CSPC regulating them?

From the sweeping language of the law, it appears Congress left them no choice. The Act covers any “consumer product designed or intended primarily for children 12 years of age and younger.”

“Consider for a minute that a twelve-year-old is a junior high school student,” says Adler. “This is not somebody who is likely to be chewing or sucking on a book.”

Lissa Harris can be reached

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