CPSIA chronicles, February 10

by Walter Olson on February 10, 2009

Major provisions of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act take effect today, and last night the responsible federal agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, released a 13-page set of guidelines (PDF, updated link) for manufacturers and resellers, who thus enjoyed a generous few hours in which to review its myriad of bewildering details before opening for business on Tuesday and risking fines and prison terms under the law.

In general, the rules appear to hold little that is surprising or new, and thus serve to confirm that the law will prove a disaster unless quickly revisited and reformed by the U.S. Congress. To take just one example, that of resale, thrift and consignment stores, the CPSC guidance advises that such stores discard, or refuse to accept donations of, a very wide range of children’s items unless they are willing to test the items for lead or call their original manufacturer — neither of which steps is consistent with the economics of an ordinary small thrift store. Included in the suspect list are most children’s clothing (because most of it has snaps, buttons, zippers, grommets or other closures with unknown/unproved metal or plastic content), most books that were printed before 1985 or that (even if more recent) include metal or plastic elements such as staples* or spiral binders; most playthings (dolls, balls, trains, toy cars, etc.), most shoes and hair ornaments, most sporting goods, outdoor play items and wagons, board games when including any plastic spinners, tokens or other items, all bicycles and tricycles in kids’ sizes, most decorations for kids’ rooms, nearly everything with metal or synthetic applique, most school, art and science supplies, and on and on. A much diminished assortment of t-shirts, pullover sweaters, slip-on canvas shoes, unpainted/untreated wood blocks, post-1985 glued-spine books and a few like items might remain on the shelves, but for the most part, it now seems clear, the U.S. Congress in its wisdom has decided to banish the business of kids’ resale to the realm of outlawry, even when carried on by non-profits with unpaid volunteers.

I’ll have more later in the day. In the mean time, let me mention that Forbes.com has now published, in altered form, my 50-state survey of business distress, legal irrationality, and protest arising from CPSIA, which had earlier appeared here (on Sunday) as a blog post. Go check it out now!

*Although the 13-page guidance booklet itself is silent on the subject of staples, note the footnote to section 5 in the separate guidance on lead limits: “The term ‘ordinary book’ in this context means one that is published on cardboard or paper printed by conventional methods and intended to be read. It excludes children’s books that have plastic, metal or electronic parts.”

{ 11 trackbacks }

CPSIA and vintage books
02.10.09 at 4:43 pm
600ppm: The CPSIA Blog | CPSIA Updates: February 10th, 2009
02.10.09 at 5:33 pm
Defending People » Bravest of All at 451 Degrees
02.10.09 at 10:40 pm
Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act Leads Consumer Products Safety Commission To Advise Secondhand and Thrift and Consignment Stores To Destroy Children's Books Made Before 1985 | Popehat
02.11.09 at 11:36 am
Thrift stores, the day after
02.12.09 at 8:36 am
CPSIA, 1984, and Hang On To Your Vintage Books | A Classic Housewife In A Modern World
02.12.09 at 11:18 pm
First Do No Harm « Vox Nova
02.13.09 at 3:25 pm
First Do No Harm « Blackadder’s Lair
02.13.09 at 3:28 pm
CPSIA chronicles, February 27
03.01.09 at 5:14 pm
CPSIA chronicles, March 4
03.04.09 at 3:59 pm
CPSIA chronicles, April 21
04.21.09 at 9:44 pm


1 Valerie Jacobsen 02.10.09 at 2:49 am

I wasn’t thrilled with the exception stating that we can sell pre-1985 children’s books as long as they are pricey vintage collectibles for adult collectors. Um, great, but most of our children’s books, even our older children’s books, are sold for children to read. And read them, they do.

We ran an audit in our bookstore today. We have about 7000 books catalogued. Of our children’s chapter books, about 65% are pre-1985. Of our children’s picture books, about 35% are pre-1985. Most of these sell for under $10 and are stocked as children’s reading.

As an ethical matter, I really can’t discard our cultural heritage just because the CPSC has decreed that books published through *1984* may or may not still form a legal part of the canon of children’s literature for our culture.

I was willing to resist the censorship of 1984 and the Fire Department of Fahrenheit 451 long before I became a bookseller, so I’d love to run a black market in quality children’s books–but at the same time it’s not like the CPSC has never destroyed a small, harmless company before. It’s a scary thing to know that what you are doing is a positive good for the community–and yet possibly, strangely illegal.

Also, I am comforted by no promises from Nord and Moore that are not clear consequences of CPSIA itself. The membership of the commission will probably be changed this year, and if Waxman gets much input into the new membership, we could end up with five first rate cuckoos.

2 Carol Baicker-McKee 02.10.09 at 8:22 am

Valerie, please, for the sake of children and history hang onto your books! I kept thinking this law would go away, but now I’m worried that an important part of our heritage is genuinely threatened. Many, many children’s books printed before 1985 are now out of print and do not exist still in a form that would make them easy to republish (printing plates are usually destroyed when a book goes out of print and older books did not have electronic versions). Many books, though of enduring value to children and social scientists, may not exist in conditions or simply don’t fall into categories that make them appealing to collectors, the one group besides packrats that I guess is still allowed to own them. Although organizations like the Gutenberg Project have been working to scan and preserve many older children’s books in electronic form, they can only target books that are no longer copyright protected, a very small portion of the children’s books printed since 1985.

If nothing happens to change this law soon, I promise I will spend whatever money and devote whatever space I can to buying up these older books. I’ll be happy to label myself a collector (and I’m subversive enough to leave the books lying around where kids might “accidentally” read them).

3 Dr. Hans Schantz 02.10.09 at 9:43 am

My wife, Barbara, is a poster child for all that is wrong with the CPSIA. She’s a stay-at-home Mom for our two sets of twins – girls Cora and Greta who are four and boys Carlton and Franklin who are seven months old. Of necessity, she devised a very clever bowl that enables one handed feeding of babies and easy self-feeding for toddlers. You can see it at http://www.babydipper.com, and until today, you could buy it on Amazon. In consultation with her manufacturer, she chose the highest quality material she could find, which regrettably turned out to be a polycarbonate. It might be compliant with the phthalate standards – we don’t know – but the testing labs are backed up, and there’s not much point in testing anyway since the CPSC has indicated in last night’s release they are likely to issue completely revised testing procedures that will supersede existing tests. Why pay for an expensive test that won’t be accepted as final? I’m just glad the lab was too busy to take our money or we’d really have been screwed.

As holders of pre-existing inventory, we figured we’d be fine until the NRDC lawsuit yanked the rug out from underneath us. We’ve been working since the law was passed in August to get a revised bowl from demonstrably compliant materials manufactured, but it will be another couple of months before we can get the revised design produced and shipped to us. And we were hoping to fund this improved bowl by sales of our existing stock which now isn’t going to happen.

I’m particularly appalled at the CPSC’s effrontery in “helping” small businesses like ours by waiving the testing requirements but still threatening fines and prison for selling products above the limits – as if there were a way to be confident a product is compliant without testing. Maybe in Washington the ethic of “go-ahead and violate the law, we probably won’t either catch you or enforce it” is standard operating procedure. Here in the heartland, however, we have a (perhaps ill-advised) respect for the rule of law (however stupid and onerous it might be), and we don’t care to risk fines and prison counting on the CPSC’s winks, nudges, and bureaucratic ineptitude to shield us.

Barbara will have a few rough months and we’ll go deeper into debt because of this, but we’ll pull through one way or another. My heart really goes out to the used book store, thriftshop owners, and consignment shop owners, and to fellow parents on a budget who will no longer be able to stretch their straining budgets by purchasing childrens’ products second hand. They are all well and truly screwed.

It’s a shame that hysterical advocates of pseudoscience have been able to impose these enormous burdens on entrepreneurs and small businesses all for the sake of avoiding questionable harms that are nebulous at best. As the reality of how stupid and onerous this law is begins to sink in, perhaps we’ll see improvement. I’m not holding my breath, though.

4 Darby 02.10.09 at 10:01 am

My 10-year-old daughter found an old book of mine — “Harriet The Spy” — that was printed in the 1960’s. She started reading it last night, and probably brought it to school today. Just wondering if I should contact the school and let them know that my daughter may have brought in a “banned, hazardous substance,” and advise them to immediately contact our local hazmat team.

Did ADULTS actually write this law? Whatever happened to common sense?

BTW, I also have at home vintage Nancy Drew’s… should I be tossing those?

5 Bob Neal 02.10.09 at 11:14 am

Common sense has nothing whatsoever to do with government or populist opinion these days. We are a nation of victims and those who know what’ s best for us.

6 GregS 02.10.09 at 3:59 pm

Here’s my completely cynical take on this (I sincerely hope events prove me wrong): Congress will do little or nothing to amend the CPSIA, because to do so would be to admit that they screwed up when they passed the law. Instead, they’ll just wait and let the problem take care of itself. By which I mean: wait until all the companies that can’t afford to comply with the law either go out of business or stop dealing in children’s products. If they wait long enough then the only companies left in the business will be the ones big enough to afford to comply with the law’s requirements, and when we reach that stage the companies that are left will no longer be agitating for change, since they’ll have already adapted to the new regime.

In fact, when I’m feeling especially cynical, I start to think that it’s quite possible that once the children’s products industry has adapted to these new rules, some bright light in Congress will introduce a bill to extend the same lead and phthalates rules to all products sold in the United States for everyone, child and adult alike. After all, if it’s a good idea for children, why not for adults?

7 M 02.10.09 at 11:04 pm

Please don’t throw out any old children’s books! I hold out hope this can change and those of us who love books and illustrations from our childhood won’t have to lose that too.

8 -Dave- 02.11.09 at 4:32 pm

Here is another take on pre-’85 books. I own a  preschool, with a lot of venerable children’s books. A few years ago, I hired a young college girl working on an early childhood degree as an assistant teacher. We caught her going through the shelves of books in our storage room, and throwing out all all the pre-’85 books, because her professor had taught them they must be discarded. NOT because of physical properties, but because they tend to have Politically Incorrect stories and pictures in them of mothers wearing aprons and fathers smoking pipes, etc.

We were horrified, and she was amazed that we were upset. She thought she was doing us a favor, and just couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t want to discard those old “sexist” books. ?Dave?

9 Robert Goodman 02.12.09 at 4:48 pm

Don’t you understand that this is all part of the economic stimulus? Think of all the work that will be needed to replace the stocks that are destroyed. That’s a lot of jobs.

Back when I thought I might actually make money off the non-irritating bubble bath I invented for Carol Low’s children, I figured I could avoid an FDA regulation on “foaming detergent bath products for children” (which would vitiate and prohibit my safety claims on the label unless labeled “adults only”) by selling it as an amusement product only — i.e. a toy. So now I’d have to sell it for adults only anyway, or have someone bottle it and then test the bottled product for Pb, etc.

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