Friday, June 12, 2009

Book Burning: Not Just For Nazis Anymore

Green Eggs and Ham. Where the Wild Things Are. Corduroy. Charlotte’s Web. The Indian in the Cupboard. Little House on the Prairie. Goodnight Moon…

Which of these books should be banned from your local library?

The answer: All of them, according to Congress. The Consumer Product Safety Information Act (CPSIA), passed in August 2008 and enacted in February 2009, was intended to keep children from being harmed by products that contain lead.

That’s a noble quest, and an important one. The problem is, like so many well-intentioned regulations, the “safety net” was cast too wide. The results have been catastrophic for many small business owners, and may soon even be affecting your favorite public library.

The CPSIA requires that all products intended for children under the age of 12 are tested and certified as meeting the lead limits as set forth by law. “So what?” you might say. “That’s a good idea,” you might muse. I know I did.

The problem, as it applies to my library and my non-profit Friends of the Library group, is that some books published before 1985 were printed with inks containing lead. Some. Not many, but some books intended for children may contain lead in the ink.

It is important to note that the ink in books does not flake off, like paint chips. A child would have to actually eat the book in order to ingest any lead that might possibly be contained on the page. Furthermore, the amount of lead that a child might consume from the digestion of a book is so small that he or she would have to eat dozens of books in short order to ingest enough lead to be harmful. To quote citizen activist Sarah Natividad, “Even if you could find books with lead in them, a child would have to eat so many of them that the digestive consequences would kick in first.”

There’s a lesson here: If your allow your children to read books that were printed before 1985, you should absolutely discourage them from a diet comprised solely of books.

Too bad, because they are so good sautéed in butter. I suppose I’ll have to go grocery shopping now.

As the law is written, it prohibits the distribution of items intended for children that do not comply with the lead limits. How do we find out which books contain lead? We get them tested through an expensive process which, as it happens, destroys the book, or we get it tested through a different expensive process. Doesn’t really matter, because both are cost-prohibitive for most libraries. By the way, “distribution” does not have to be for profit, so it applies to our libraries.

At this point of compliance, your local library may have destroyed its inventory of pre-1985 children’s books through lead testing, but let’s just pretend that your library is warehousing the untested books. Now, they can legally a) restrict checkout of children’s books to patrons 13 years or older (“May I see your state ID card, please?”), b) stockpile the books for perhaps decades, until they become rare and valuable enough to be considered “collectors items” that are not likely to be used by children, or c) get rid of them.

Can’t sell them… that, too, falls under “distribution.” Let’s not put them in landfills… they could be loaded with lead, remember? Guess we’ll have to burn them!

The government doesn’t leave many options.

I am shocked that virtually no one in my world has even heard of the CPSIA, let alone its far-reaching consequences. The potential for devastation doesn’t just apply to libraries, either. Your favorite thrift store, crafter, school, youth club and more are targets. Even you run the risk of prosecution if you hold a yard sale and “distribute” items for children that contain lead. Many small businesses have already closed, unable to withstand the economic consequences.

A great citizen-organized website to visit for more information is Start there. Get outraged. Write many, many letters to your lawmakers.

I’m not sure how so many members of Congress managed to vote in favor of the CPSIA without considering its catastrophic effects…

Perhaps they ate too many lead-laced books as children.

Congratulations, Congress! You've been awarded The Gonzo Mama's "Big Stinky Award!" Celebrate by giving yourselves a big raise, why don't you?

The above column was published in the Lake Chelan Mirror and on If you'd like to share your thoughts with the editor, you may do so here.


  1. Would be funny if it wasn't so sad!

    I agree, how did so many Congressmen/Senators manage to vote for this horrendous law?

    Kudos to the 4 who said no then, and to the handful more who are willing to change it now...As for the rest of them...AARGH!

  2. I'm so glad you published this - the CPSIA has a lot of horrible unintended consequences and is putting a TON of self-employed folks out of business.


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