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.
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.
Implementation of the new law has libraries and secondhand bookstores reeling. Although they could pay to have each old book tested, the cost ($300 to $600 a book, according to the American Library Association) makes that impractical.
The commission has advised libraries not to circulate old books while the agency reviews the situation. But few libraries have complied, and they complain that they have received contradictory information from the commission.
"We're talking about tens of millions of books," said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the Washington office of the American Library Association. "You've got the commission playing games with the libraries.
"It's hard enough to get kids to read," she said. "We don't want parents to think, 'Oh, there's something wrong with this book; I don't want to take it home from the library.' "
Children are more vulnerable than adults to damage from ingesting lead. Experts agree that fetuses and toddlers younger than 2 are at the most risk, but the threat remains for several years. Specialists say that lead poisoning can cause IQ loss and developmental delays, difficulty in focusing and increased aggressiveness. Children have to ingest the lead, not just touch it, but as anyone who has cared for toddlers knows, most toys and even books will wind up in their mouths sooner or later.
"Lead poisoning among children is one of the most intractable problems in pediatric history," said David Rosner, co-director of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University. "At present there's a whole body of science that says there's no threshold, there's no level of exposure that's safe. . . . The only long-term answer is to say, 'If we know there's lead there, keep it away from kids.' "
Rosner thought that the effort to take pre-1985 books out of circulation might seem like overkill to parents who grew up reading the old books themselves. "Unfortunately, the latest science doesn't really jibe with [their] understanding of what danger is," he said. He said the commission might be taking an aggressive stance in this case because "they've been burnt a number of times for not going far enough."
The commission says that it is understaffed and overtaxed by the new areas it must police.
"The agency is really stretched to the limit as to what we are doing about this new law," Martyak said. But he said that the agency has been given very little leeway. He cited new restrictions on children's bikes that have also caused a backlash: There was enough lead in the tire valves to push them over the enforcement limit, even though there might not be lead anywhere else in the bike.
"Whether you consider that common sense or not, that's the way the law is written," he said.
In the District, libraries have been waiting for more information about the rules before they decide whether to pull their old children's books.
"Children's collections are a little different from our regular adult collections," said Nancy Davenport, interim director of library services at the District of Columbia Public Library. Children's books stay on the shelf longer because they remain popular, she said. "You could walk into almost any children's library and you'd see the same books that you just adored when you were a kid."
In the District, the law means that more than a sixth -- 110,000 of 650,000 -- of the children's books on the shelves might have to be removed. And in these tight financial times, replacing those books could be a serious problem.
"I don't know that there is an urban system in this country that is expecting a budget bonanza," Davenport said.
In secondhand stores such as Goodwill, the law has already begun to take effect. Local outlets have been slowly scouring their shelves of old children's books and other products, such as cribs, strollers and car seats, that could run the risk of violating the law. The books are piling up in a warehouse in Arlington.
"It is never Goodwill's goal to knowingly sell dangerous merchandise," said Brendan Hurley, a spokesman for Goodwill of Greater Washington. "We are, of course, concerned about how this will affect retail sales."
That means that books such as "Theodore Turtle," "Bunnicula" and "Dominic" -- copies of which, worn with time and the attentions of countless children, were on the shelves of an Arlington Goodwill store earlier this month -- will no longer be available in old editions.
That will disappoint parents such as Rachel Merrill, who lives in Arlington.
"On these shelves I know I've found four or five books that are classics," she said, ones she said she couldn't have afforded if they were new.