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Libraries, Booksellers Face Anti-Lead Ban On Older Books for Kids

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Rachel Merrill, mother of three, was holding innocuous-seeming contraband in her hand at an Arlington Goodwill store earlier this month: a 1971 edition of "Little House on the Prairie." This copy of the children's classic had just become illegal to resell because of concerns that some old books contain lead in their ink.

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Legislation passed by Congress last August in response to fears of lead-tainted toys imported from China went into effect last month. Consumer groups and safety advocates have praised it for its far-reaching protections. But libraries and book resellers such as Goodwill are worried about one small part of the law: a ban on distributing children's books printed before 1985.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the agency charged with enforcing the act, lead in the books' inks could make its way into the mouths of little kids. Goodwill is calling for a change in the legislation even as it clears its shelves to comply, and libraries are worried they could be the next ones scrubbing their shelves.

Parents like Rachel Merrill are concerned, too. She home-schools her children and says that new books are just too expensive.

"We eat organic food, and I'm very careful about that kind of stuff," she said. "But to me, it seems like the law's written way too broadly."

Scientists are emphatic that lead, which was common in paints before its use was banned in 1978, poses a threat to the neural development of small children. But they disagree about whether there is enough in the ink in children's books to warrant concern. Some even accuse the safety commission of trying to undermine the law by stirring up popular backlash.

"On the scale of concerns to have about lead, this is very clearly not a high priority," said Ellen Silbergeld, a MacArthur scholar and professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University who is considered one of the leading experts on lead poisoning.

"It doesn't take a tremendous amount of intelligence to figure out what the highest-risk sources of lead are," Silbergeld said. "This is a way of distracting attention from their failure to protect children from the clear and present dangers of lead. I think this is just absurd, and I think it's disingenuous." She said that toys, poorly made jewelry and other trinkets were cause for much more alarm.

The legislation, which passed with strong bipartisan support, was a reaction to lead's being discovered on and in thousands of imported toys, mostly from China, in 2007. It restricts lead content in products designed for children age 12 and younger to 600 parts per million by weight; the threshold drops to 300 parts per million in August of this year. Items as varied as bikes and jewelry are affected.

So are books such as "Madeleine," "Goodnight Moon" and "Corduroy."

Lead was phased out of printer's ink following the 1978 paint ban; lacking a firm date for when it effectively disappeared, the safety commission has ruled that the toxic metal might be found in any book printed before 1985.

"The information we have found so far is that the ink used to have lead in it," said Joe Martyak, a spokesman for the commission and the chief of staff to its acting chairwoman, Nancy Nord. "They took the lead out of it sometime around 1980 or so." He said that tests of some old books have shown lead levels above 300 parts per million.


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