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CPSIA and resale

When you live on an island, resale can be a lifeline:

At a time when the crumbling national economy is forcing many Vineyard families to seek bargains on kids’ clothing, toys and games, both Island thrift stores have been forced to throw away nearly their entire inventory of children’s items due to a new federal law designed to protect children from lead products. …the second-hand stores in Tisbury and Edgartown this week cleared their stores of children’s merchandise in dismay. …

lesliebrookebarnyard

Both the Martha’s Vineyard Second Hand Store in Edgartown, run by the Island chapter of the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, and the Thrift Shop in Vineyard Haven, run by the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, have been forced to throw away hundreds or perhaps thousands of children’s items with potentially lead-carrying zippers, buttons, painted fabrics or decals.

“We had to clear out the toys, the kids’ clothing, the dolls . . . everything had to go,” said Dolly Campbell, assistant manager of the Vineyard Haven Thrift Shop, painting a scene straight out of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. “I understand why they passed the law, but they didn’t think it out very well. Now we don’t have any toys or children’s clothing for families in need. What kind of sense does that make?”

The director of the Edgartown store is aware of the law’s restraints on giving away inventory that cannot be sold, but confides that she quietly let people know the things were out in the trash just in case they might want to take it when she wasn’t looking.

“What’s next? Will we no longer be able to say hello to our neighbors? Does this law make the world a better place? I don’t think so,” she said.

Read the whole thing (Jim Hickey, Martha’s Vineyard Gazette). And (via incoming links, which themselves have a serendipitous quality much like thrift stores) here’s a picture from The Magic Bus, 1948; and a third entry in the series on vintage kids’ books by Carol Baicker-McKee.

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[Broken link on CPSC surveillance program fixed now.]

  • The internet is a-hum with reactions to a proposal by West Virginia state representative Jeff Eldridge (D-Big Ugly) to ban Barbie dolls “and other similar dolls that promote or influence girls to place an undue importance on physical beauty to the detriment of their intellectual and emotional development.” That idea is predictably going nowhere (at least in West Virginia: Montpelier, Vt. is said to have voted a Barbie ban*), but Eldridge can perhaps take consolation in that CPSIA has already (with virtually no media taking note of the fact) banned the sale of vast numbers of vintage Barbies that pose equal dangers of symbolic or psychological impairment, if not of actual physical dangers. This 1999 New York Times piece describes how Mattel was “beginning an effort to eliminate” the use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) compounds in the dolls, and that environmental activist groups contended that PVC often included lead as well as (less surprisingly) the plastic softeners phthalates, some but not all of which are banned by the law. dollsanddollclothes As Denise Van Patten noted in an About.com write-up in January, it is not clear what old dolls are still going to be lawful to sell, distribute or give away under CPSIA, if they cannot be fit into the “adult collectible” exception that covers items so expensive they will be kept out of children’s hands. Soft plastic is only the beginning of the problem. Most older dolls have paint as a component — often only in the rendering of the eyes, but that’s enough to count as a resale red flag under the CPSC’s Feb. 9 guidelines. Hair and dyed fabric, both of unknown composition? Buttons or snaps in the garment, or worse yet, rhinestones? About the only such plaything a thrift shop would not advised to discard under the guidelines would be an unpainted and unvarnished rigid humanoid figurine of raw wood or cast aluminum. If your child does find one of those on a thrift store shelf, she’s welcome to cuddle it all she pleases.
  • Carol Baicker McKee is a children’s book author and illustrator who commented eloquently (more) on one of our earlier posts about books. Now she has a great post explaining why, although she “never used to think of myself as an activist,” she’s thrown herself into the fight to change this law. As she points out, some things changed, but other things didn’t change, when the CPSC announced a short safe list of presumptively lawful material for children’s products along with a one-year stay on many testing requirements (but not on the banning of goods that flunk the thresholds). She explains why “the stays provide only the illusion of relief,” and that “when the stay ends a year from now, the destructive testing provisions will still go into effect for all children’s products except the small percentage that have been given a reprieve – the costs of that testing will force the remaining small businesses that have limped along this year into oblivion (and the [requirement for] destructive testing will obviously signal the end of one of a kind products).” Read the whole thing.
  • In a classic 1850 pamphlet, Frederic Bastiat writes of “what is seen, and what is not seen” when people recommend government solution to a problem. Deputy Headmistress writes of “what Congress didn’t see“. More: Patrick Stephens on a similar theme last month.
  • A Georgia newspaper quotes CPSC spokeswoman Arlene Flecha as saying that “her agency will have inspectors make unannounced visits to stores throughout the country and will randomly conduct tests on products.” And if you’re wondering about the CPSC “Internet surveillance project”, in which agents of the commission pose as consumers in order to trap detect persons selling forbidden goods on eBay or Craigslist, you can find out more about that here (link fixed now).
  • At the Heritage Foundation’s InsiderOnline blog, Alex Adrianson has a detail-filled though not lengthy post that would make a good short introduction to the subject to send to (say) a lawmaker.
  • Allison Loudermilk at the How Stuff Works blogs takes a look at the law’s heavy impact on thrift stores (“the selection at your local thrift store just got a whole lot slimmer”), while the PTA Thrift Shop of Carrboro, N.C. regrets to inform its customers that it’s out of kids’ resale entirely due to the law; things are only a little better in Salem, Ore. Manager Lisa Sonnek of the York, Nebraska Goodwill has pulled all the children’s clothing, toys, furniture, and pre-1985 books, in accord with policy from above, but has put aside “some clean children’s clothing, in anticipation of the policy being modified in the near future”. Dunno – that might depend on Henry Waxman’s heart melting or something.

*Although numerous online sources report as fact a Montpelier Barbie “ban”, commenter Barb says it’s far from clear that the reports have much of a factual basis.

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Their hands are tied

  • Finally! Today’s Boston Globe covers the thrift-store calamity:


    In recent weeks, Goodwill pulled all children’s merchandise from its nine stores in the state. Thrift chain Second Time Around eliminated kids’ clothing from several of its 16 shops. St Vincent de Paul is currently removing children’s clothing with metal zippers, buttons, and painted fabrics from its processing center, which sends out merchandise to its six stores in Massachusetts.

    It’s exactly the sort of coverage that’s been overdue in the biggest newspapers since Feb. 10: well-reported, making clear the human costs of the law for both cash-strapped shoppers and charitable sponsors, and including words like “devastating” and “heartbreaking”. And on page one.

  • If you missed it yesterday, Overlawyered gets results! Although sometimes the opposite of the kind we intend. Yesterday we hailed as a breakthrough the House Small Business Committee’s willingness to hold a hearing next week on the costs of CPSIA. Within a few hours, as Rick Woldenberg relates, Congressional staffers hastily put out word that they were canceling the hearing and that the idea is “not likely to ever be brought back”. There’s no way for us to know just who placed the phone call, but odds are good it was someone who realized that letting people from around the country get in front of a microphone and talk about this law’s effects would not exactly do wonders for the image of Henry Waxman, Bobby Rush, Jan Schakowsky, Public Citizen, PIRG, or their allies. More on the cancellation from Rick Woldenberg, who reports that this is the third time he’s been disinvited from Capitol Hill testimony. Sounds like someone really dislikes the message he would deliver.
  • About ten colors too many

  • Hair bow makers on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
  • The Examiner, which has a wide readership in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and other cities, is out today with a great editorial on CPSIA which also generously directs readers to this site and its “chilling” reports. It concludes: “This law is an utter disaster. Congress ought to fix it, immediately.” The Examiner also quotes Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), one of the law’s sponsors, as saying “the law allows the CPSC to make ‘commonsense exceptions’ to anti-lead requirements.” This is not the first time I have been obliged to wonder whether Sen. Pryor actually has a close familiarity with the terms of the bill he helped guide to passage, and if not, whose summaries he has been relying on when he talks to the press. arkansasstateflag
    It is precisely because the law does not confer on the CPSC any “commonsense exception” authority that the commission was obliged to turn down the makers of kids’ minibikes in their plea for an exemption the other day. Same for many other instances that could be cited, such as the pre-1985 books and the size 10 winter coats with zippers and snaps that are being yanked from thrift store shelves. Had the commission such a “commonsense exception” discretion, it would almost certainly have acted by now to defuse these sources of public outcry. To repeat the question: who does Sen. Pryor rely on for his briefings?
  • For adult use only

  • Speaking of products with vanishingly low risk of poisoning that have trouble obtaining commonsense exemptions, we’ve been remiss in not staying on the case of ballpoint pens, mentioned in our Feb. 6 and Feb. 13 roundups. Deputy Headmistress has quite a bit more on the legal limbo occupied by the writing implements, which appear now to be unlawful when intended primarily for under-12 use. And visitor “Scott” wrote last week in our comments section:



    What still amazes me is that the story about ballpoint pens being in violation of the CPSIA isn’t getting more notice. The CPSC admits that ballpoint pens intended for children are covered. As it happens, the US trade association for the makers of pens, pencils and erasers has sent a letter to the CPSC that ballpoint pens are not-compliant and no existing alloy satisfies the lead limits. It may take 2 years to develop an alloy, if one exists. I can only conclude that there must be very very very many stores not in compliance and ‘poisoning’ our children with lead. Are these stores not facing strict liability and risking felony criminal liability including 5 years in prison and $250,000 fines? The stay by the CPSC doesn’t help the pen-makers or sellers, because they’re in knowing violation of the lead limits. All they can hope for is that none of the 50 state attorney generals decides to prosecute what would appear to be a slam-dunk case. There is a chance that the CPSC may eventually decide to make an exemption for pens, however the CPSC admits that its staff is ‘not yet aware of any substance as to which the required showing [of no absorption of any lead into the human body] can be made.’.

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fenceconversationwithdoll

  • More thrift store and reseller reports, not linked earlier: Blacksburg, Va. (“a lot of customer complaints at the YMCA at Virginia Tech since the thrift shop pulled kids’ toys off its shelves”), Chapel Hill/Carrboro, N.C. (“many patrons are upset” at absence of children’s items), Sioux City, Iowa (“To be on the safe side, Goodwill removed from the sales floors nearly all its used children’s clothing and all its toys”), Le Mars, Iowa (youngster’s outing ends in tears; items in storage for now).


    And yet at many other stores — in other states or cities, maybe even down the block in the same town — decisions on what to drop have been much more selective. Thus New Orleans (large thrift store in St. Charles Parish “no longer accepting small toys, painted wood items or clothing with trinkets or toys attached to them,” those being, of course, a small fraction of the items that could lead to an inadvertent CPSIA violation), and Lufkin, Texas (list of goods Goodwill won’t accept includes bunk beds, bicycle helmets, embellished books, and many others, but a good bit narrower than CPSC guidance would suggest). The shop I visit most often, in a relatively prosperous NYC suburb, had a sparser-looking-than-usual selection yesterday, which nonetheless included items that would raise a definite eyebrow under the CPSC guidelines, such as kids’ athletic shoes with metal lacing grommets. And it’s not hard to find thrift outlets with relatively high profiles in their community — I won’t name names for fear of getting them into trouble — that don’t seem to have dropped much of anything. You’d hardly imagine that CPSIA was supposed to be a uniform national law.
  • Related: Riverside, Calif. Press-Enterprise, “Goodwill Industries International said it could potentially lose $134 million nationwide in the coming year if forced to dispose of all children’s clothing and products, according to spokeswoman Lauren Lawson.” And the Naperville, Ill., Sun covered the headaches of maternity and children’s reseller Connie Ballas (From My Room).
  • Hugh Hewitt’s popular conservative radio show devoted an hour to the law yesterday, interviewing attorney Gary Wolensky of Snell & Wilmer, who represents manufacturers and whose discussion primarily focused on the headaches they face. The show drew a strong call-in reaction and has already led to a flurry of online interest in CPSIA reform.
  • Meanwhile, Jennifer Grinnell of Sherborn, Mass. writes that CPSIA reform needs to be approached as more than a right-vs.-left, blue-red, Dem-Rep political football [Change.org]
  • When the New Orleans Times-Picayune interviewed local toy stores, the independent retailer was finding the law “burdensome” and “very cumbersome” as she tried to communicate with all the producers of items in her stock, while the franchise operator seemed to be having a much easier time of it because he carried only items on a checklist from national and could piggyback his compliance paperwork on headquarters’. Yes, that sounds about right.
  • Don’t toss those pre-’85 kids’ books, thrifters! Set them aside and await orders from D.C.! That seems to be the advice of Examiner columnist (and former children’s bookseller) Diane Petryk Bloom, who’s confident that a law this bad will be amended and suggests that in the mean time some civil disobedience might be in order, advice that might not be taken readily by resellers staring down the business end of those $100,000 potential fines.


    Let’s assume she’s right that most people in the thrift store business can’t bring themselves to leave perfectly good children’s books out on the curb, and instead tuck them into storage for the time being or look the other way while an employee “borrows” them for home use. What happens next, as the weeks turn into months (or perhaps years) with no action from Henry Waxman & co.? The main mechanism by which we will lose older books is not so much that thrift stores will toss them in the trash, as that they’ll refuse to accept them as donations or consignments in the first place, while other outlets worried about legal liability (such as online auction sites) adopt similar policies. Once there’s no convenient way to dispose of the books even as donations, families will simply discard most of them (with occasional collectible/rarity exceptions) when the kids grow up, when moving house, or when winding up a family estate. It’s not as if there’s likely to be much press coverage of these micro-events, which doesn’t make them less than real.


    ParentDish and Etsy also have active threads in progress on the issue of older children’s books.

  • Some other blog talk: Blue Rose Girls, Kora in Hell/WordSmoker (rude language), Lex Fortis (satire), and of course leading CPSIA-watchers Deputy Headmistress/Common Room (on press coverage, Consumers’ Union and dragons) and Valerie Jacobsen (what? you mean CPSC would target small business with punitive actions?)
  • yorkiebarrette

  • Sorry, even if your little girl has been saving up her allowance for one of our pretty hair barrettes, we can’t sell it to you, unless you want it for her dog [MaidenUS]

Public domain image: Grandma’s Graphics, Mabel Betsy Hill; dog image from MaidenUS.

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You didn’t think they were going to make it that easy, did you?

On February 10, 2009 we have added a Shipping Restriction for our Childrens Books, as follows: Effective February 10, 2009 Children’s Books will no longer be shipped to the USA. This change is being made because of the United States Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSIA). … We have added “SHIPPING NOT AVAILABLE TO THE USA” to the description of the books affected by this shipping restriction.

— announcement at Canada-based online used-book seller Trylinski Books.

Relatedly, on the domestic front: “The fun is over” says online vintage seller “Scribbler”, who’s pulling her stock of pre-1985 kids’ books, and yet feels optimistic: “I have to think the government will do the right thing over the next few months and alter this crazy law to make vintage kids’ books legal again, so I don’t expect to be out of business too too long.” (She’s also giving away to a random post-commenter a post-’85 reprint of a book by one of my favorite children’s illustrators, Wanda Gag.) Occasional eBay/Craigslist reseller jensyw tries to puzzle out the law’s requirements. More: Freddie DeBoer/League of Ordinary Gentlemen (“such a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad law”), Buried Treasure, Allison Kasic/Independent Women’s Forum. And @swonderful, on Twitter: “At consignment store they were disposing of pre-1985 books. The employee remarked how she will throw out all old books at home too.” After all, who knows better than the government?

More: Great coverage by Daniel Kalder in the Guardian (U.K.) Books Blog.

NothingAtAll

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StrongerWhenLinked

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blowingbubblesatus
Clueless. Disgraceful. Grossly ill-informed. And cruelly hard-hearted toward families and businesses across the country that are facing economic ruin.

Yes, after months of silence, the editorialists of the New York Times have finally weighed in with their view of how CPSIA is going. How bad did you expect their editorial to be? It’s that bad, and worse.

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In a six-paragraph editorial about toy safety, exactly one paragraph is spent informing readers that anything about the law might have aroused any public criticism. And here is that paragraph:

Unfortunately, the commission has yet to implement important aspects of the new law. The delay has caused confusion and allowed opponents to foment needless fears that the law could injure smaller enterprises like libraries, resale shops and handmade toy businesses.

Got that? “Confusion” about the law, and “delay” in implementing it, are the real problems. Fears that small business will be hurt are “needless” and are being “fomented” by presumably sinister opponents.

Or, put differently: anyone who imagines this law might be impractical for libraries, resale shops, handmade toy businesses, or other small businesses is just imagining things — fooled, perhaps, by misinformation spread by the law’s opponents.

Libraries are just imagining things if they listen to people like Emily Sheketoff, associate executive director of the American Library Association, who spoke to the press last month about the choices facing libraries if some sort of exemption could not be found. (“Either they take all the children’s books off the shelves,” she said, “or they ban children from the library.”) Or people like Chip Gibson, president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books, who spoke to Publisher’s Weekly about the prospective effects of the law: “This is a potential calamity like nothing I’ve ever seen. The implications are quite literally unimaginable. …It has to be stopped.” It’s true that the CPSC’s last-minute stay of enforcement did save the new-children’s-book trade from calamity — but remember, to the Times, “delay” has been one of the problems in implementing the law, not something that has (so far) spared us its worst effects.

whirlpoolgame

Thrift stores are just imagining things if they listen to people like Adele Meyer, executive director of the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops, who said, “The reality is that all this stuff will be dumped in the landfill.” They should ignore all the reports, no matter how numerous and from how many sources, of local Goodwill operations and other thrift stores’ closing children’s departments or sweeping more than half their contents off the shelves, and of kids’ resellers and consignment shops taking massive financial hits or closing down entirely. All of these episodes are either imaginary or, if conceded as real, an instance of overreaction to the needless fears those moustache-twirling opponents have “fomented”. (Some more thrift-store coverage not previously linked: North Carolina, Nebraska, Minnesota with Goodwill pic, upstate New York (“We can’t be sure of the risk unless we take everything off the shelf”), South Dakota, Colorado). They should also stop predicting that the pursuit of their charitable missions will suffer a major blow from the loss of children’s resale revenue, because that sort of thing just undermines morale.

handmadetoyalliancelogo1

Handmade toy businesses are just imagining things if they listen to anyone like the Handmade Toy Alliance. It’s not as if anyone like them is on its list of members.

The Times editorialists warn against “needless fears” that the law “could injure” smaller enterprises. Got that? Not only will they not be driven out of business, they won’t even be “injured”. So small enterprises from coast to coast are just imagining things if they plead desperately for places like the Times to notice that they have already closed down, or will have to do so in the foreseeable future, or have lost thousands of dollars in unsalable inventories. Motorbike dealerships around the country are just imagining things if they think they’re staring at massive losses from the inability to sell their products, even though news-side talent at the New York Times has in fact covered their story well — coverage which the editorial studiously ignores.

For as long as anyone can remember, the New York Times has unthinkingly taken its line on supposed consumer-safety issues from organized groups like Public Citizen and Consumers Union. In this case, the result of such reliance has been to render the nation’s leading newspaper a laughingstock.
Public domain image: Grandma’s Graphics, Ruth Mary Hallock.

(& welcome Virginia Postrel, Christopher Fountain, Patrick @ Popehat, Carter Wood/ShopFloor, Mike Cernovich, Katherine Mangu-Ward/Reason “Hit and Run”, Jonathan Adler @ Volokh Conspiracy, Memeorandum, Above the Law, Tim Sandefur, Mark Thompson/Donklephant, Alison Morris/Publisher’s Weekly Shelftalker blog, Jacob Grier, Amy Alkon/Advice Goddess, Joe Weisenthal/ClusterStock, Valerie Jacobsen/Bookroom Blog readers. And: Deputy Headmistress at Common Room, Faith in Truth, Amy Ridenour/National Center and NewsBusters, Charles Kuffler/Off the Kuff.)

And more: Forbes.com liked this piece and has now reprinted it in slightly altered form. And I’m particularly grateful to Robert Ambrogi/Legal Blog Watch for his generous coverage.

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The article I wrote for City Journal Thursday on the legal fate of pre-1985 children’s books has been drawing all sorts of attention, and all I can acknowledge are a few of the highlights. Education expert Jay Greene and Darleen Click at Protein Wisdom are among those put in mind of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. “Of all the risks facing American children, old books must rank very, very low,” writes leading education blogger Joanne Jacobs. Will Benton: “Every time I learn something new about the CPSIA, I get more enraged.” Illinois blogger T. Varner notices an ad for a local thrift store saying it would no longer accept donations of a “very long list” of items including “children’s books published before 1985″; only later does it click. Hector Owen: “This is what happens when Congress passes these bloated bills that nobody reads, and the President signs them, and then we start to find out what was in there. Oh dear, what did they just do last week?” JDub at Ace of Spades: “Overlawyered has pretty much flooded the zone on this — I don’t want to simply link all of the things he’s got, so give him a look. … Go. Read. Be angry.” And Mark Bennett, of criminal law blog Defending People, gives it a mention in the course of hosting Blawg Review no. 199.
goldenrodpicturebook
If you have time to read only one post from the weekend on the topic of CPSIA and books, however, make it Common Room‘s. She discusses, among other topics, the narrowness of the “collectibles for adult use” exception, the extra-vulnerable status of vintage kids’ nature and science books, which go out of print quickly and are seldom reprinted, and the fate of ex-library versions, beloved by book buyers on budgets. She also confesses to a temptation to slice the gorgeous illustrations out of certain books, a practice likely to be encouraged by CPSIA, if only because 1) the illustrations often have monetary value and might benefit from the defense that on their own they are not a product intended for children’s use; 2) the mutilated book that remains will be a less risky thing to donate, circulate or sell, since it is the color illustrations that are thought to pose the prime risk of containing infinitesimal lead exposures.* (More: as part of another good roundup, she calls our attention to this excellent Valerie Jacobsen post on why “marketing vintage children’s books as ‘adult collectibles’ will work for some children’s books, but only for a few.”)

Sierra Highlands, who like Common Room includes some beguiling illustrations, writes:

….so long as Google Books and Gutenberg are out there, the old books won’t be gone completely, but it hurts to hear of the beautiful old editions going out with tomorrow’s trash. It really, really hurts. There’s something about the physical presence of an old book that links us to our ancestors and to a world where books were loved enough to be put into beautiful editions. When I pick up an old book, often shabby on the surface but well handled, well made, well-loved, quiet but rich in form and content, I feel connected to the Permanent Things in body as well as spirit.

anne-of-green-gables-cover1

The BookShopBlog owner’s removal of six boxes of older children’s books from her shelves, mentioned here, also started an Etsy thread. Another poster at the same location had an idea for a national read-in day of protest for vintage books on the last day of National Library Week, Apr. 18.

Also, I was linked by a resource page on Anne of Green Gables and her creator, L.M. Montgomery, which made my week all by itself. I’ve started a special tag for CPSIA and books, distinct from the general CPSIA tag.

*Just to clarify the legalities once more: CPSIA does not make it unlawful to own pre-1985 kids’ books, nor does it ban the sale of such books when, as is true for many millions of them, they contain no lead in their pigments. But resellers cannot be sure which do and which don’t, and the law exposes them to liability should they stock a book with lead even if the misstep was in good faith and even if (of course) no child is hurt. The CPSC’s guidance provides a conspicuous safe harbor for the sale of books printed after 1985.

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snakesladdersgame
If you’re interested in older board games you may have gotten into the habit of haunting thrift stores, but over at leading gamer site Board Game Geek, they’re noticing that things are changing for the worse as shelves empty at many stores. Our earlier coverage of CPSIA’s likely impact on gaming is here.

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Bedtime without books
Cecilia Leibovitz in our comments section:

Today I noticed a small box of books that had been left out at the curb of a thrift shop here in Vermont. All but two were children’s books printed prior to 1985.

Feel free in comments to add your sightings, positive or negative, of what is happening in the world of kids’ resale. (More: Bookseller Nora O’Neill took six boxes’ worth of kids’ books off the shelves in her store, retail value $2,500, and is not happy about that: “Yes, Alexander, it is a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” She also has an earlier post).

Some reactions to my coverage of the threat to pre-1985 kids’ books, both at this site and in my new opinion piece at City Journal: famed sci-fi writer Jerry Pournelle (scroll to Feb. 12), Justin Taylor/Between Two Worlds, Series Books for Girls, Liberty Maven/DownsizeDC, Melissa Wiley, The Catholic Bubble, Carter Wood/ShopFloor, and Ella’s Deli. I also got a very nice note from Michael S. Hart, founder of old-text-preservation volunteer group Project Gutenberg, one of my favorite things about the Internet. And if you haven’t read Mark Bennett’s post at Defending People, linked earlier, go do so. (More: Dilettante’s Dilemma, Jeff Sypeck (test, toss, or evade?), Todd Seavey, International House of Bacon (“Again — the single worst piece of regulation in my lifetime”)).

Adapting a theme taken up by Deputy Headmistress, Love2Learn Blog has started a meme of “My Five Favorite Endangered Books” at risk of disappearing from the market under CPSIA. She makes the important point that even when pre-1985 children’s literature remains available in post-1985 reprint editions, the physical quality is often not the same: in many cases binding and paper quality is lesser, color illustrations missing or shrunken or rendered only in black and white, all of which can rob the works of their original magic. Wikipedia’s “Illustration” article is worth a look. Commenters at Common Room also suggest one group of public figures who might be prevailed upon to speak out against what the law is doing: namely, living authors of pre-1985 (and out-of-print/oop) kids’ books. It’s a group that would include some fairly big names and might get noticed in the press.

Public domain graphic: Grandma’s Graphics, Mabel Betsy Hill.

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Coping with strong winds

  • I’ve got a new opinion piece just up at City Journal on the pressure on thrift stores, inexpensive used-book dealers and other resellers to trash most of their stocks of pre-1985 children’s literature. Some of the ground it covers will be familiar to those who read Tuesday’s post at this site, as well as yesterday’s mention of CPSC commissioner Thomas Moore’s call last week (PDF) for some undefinedly large share of pre-1985 books to be “sequestered” until more is known about their dangers.

  • Several bloggers have pointed to this post at Semicolon Blog which reminds us that many post-1985 children’s books are also at risk of destruction, in particular those enhanced with decorative or amusement-providing elements in materials other than paper:

    My daughter works in a used bookstore. TODAY they pulled all the books from the children’s section that had any kind of metal or plastic or toy-like attachment, spiral bindings, balls or things attached, board books, anything that might be targeted under this law, and they very quietly trashed them all. I say “very quietly” because the bookstore had a meeting with employees and told them to be careful not to start a panic. If anyone asked what they were doing they were told to say that they were “rearranging their inventory.” No one was allowed to tell anyone about the new law, and no one was allowed to take any of the doomed-for-destruction books home or give them away.

    It should be noted that completely plain board books would be probably considered “ordinary” and thus safe to resell under the CPSC’s guidelines so long as they contain no special texturized elements such as rubber, foil, nubbly synthetic pretend-dinosaur-skin, genuine stink bugs encased in clear plastic, etc., etc.

    A lot of blogs have begun to notice the kids’ book issue, and I may round up highlights at some point. For now, start with Deputy Headmistress at Common Room;

  • Thanks to Esther of Design Loft for confirming something of which I’ve heard rumors for a while, namely that CPSIA bans ballpoint pens when designed or marketed for persons under 12, because of the irreducible minimum of lead in the mechanisms. Giving the kids adult ballpoint pens is still okay, but shipments of adult pens to, say, middle schools are at the very least under a legal cloud, and it is reasonably clear that pens with kid-oriented decorations on them have become unlawful to sell unless the decorations can be somehow expunged to do away with the kid appeal. A trade group called WIMA, the Writing Implement Manufacturers Association, is now petitioning for an exemption (PDF). I see that Deputy Headmistress is now on this in her usual thorough way;
  • Virginia Postrel’s superb piece at her Dynamist blog got a lot of attention, including links from leading bloggers Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan. She’s followed up with second and third posts, the latter of which asks:

    Why stop with products “primarily” for kids? Why not test everything a kid might encounter, from sofa cushions to bathroom mirrors?

    But maybe I shouldn’t say that. Public Citizen might get ideas.

  • More from Deputy Headmistress: “FedEx now requires a Certificate of Conformity as required by the CPSIA before they will accept any imported products,” with a roundup on motorcycles, substitute chemicals, and other topics. And I predict Public Citizen is going to rue the day it ever got the D.H.Mrs. on its case with its misrepresentations about the law;
  • Journalist Radley Balko blogs on the law at The Agitator (and also has kind words for my coverage, for which thanks). And Katherine Mangu-Ward reveals that she’s going to have an article on the law in an upcoming issue of Reason;
  • Who knew that the New York Times was so bad at covering the problems of the book, design and garment trades, and so good at covering crises in the world of motorcycles? But the proof continues;
  • Reader Adam L., fresh from this thread at PhillyBlog, writes:

    I was discussing your City Journal article with someone and
    they pointed out this Snopes article, which would seem to contradict
    yours. I am curious about your view.

    To which I wrote back:

    Snopes botched it. It’s true there was an erroneous rumor going around a few weeks ago that resellers would be legally required to do lead testing. The CPSC and others corrected this and pointed out that although resellers would be liable for selling anything over the lead ppm limit, they were not legally obliged to test, that is, they could take their chances. Hence Snopes is literally correct when it points out testing is not required, but flatly misses the wider story, which is that fear of liability is by no means an imaginary phenomenon since many older items (including some books) do flunk the new standards, even if posing no material risk to kids, and reliance on CPSC enforcement forbearance is chancy, especially since the CPSC is not the only source of enforcement for the law.

    Many people have written to Snopes in recent weeks asking them to correct their item, but they have done nothing.

    And then I pointed him to coverage at this site and elsewhere on thrift stores’ removal of books and other merchandise that pose no risk to kids but that cannot readily be known to comply with the law.

    I keep waiting for Snopes to correct, and they keep not doing so, even after the past week’s coverage of convulsions in the thrift store world. This is highly damaging because so many writers and editors check Snopes as a quick way to dismiss false alarms — I’ve done so myself many times, though I am less inclined to do so again. Is it time for someone to set up a “Shame on Snopes” page? (More: reader Meredith Wright wrote to Snopes and got a highly unsatisfactory response, reprinted in comments below);

  • Wisconsin bookseller Valerie Jacobsen charges Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) with telling a “goofy whopper” about the safety problems that led up to the law’s passage;
  • Jacobsen also correctly pinpoints one of the key questions in the unfolding political struggle under CPSIA: will there be a hearing in Washington around which public and media interest might crystallize, and if so will it be under the full control of those who want to keep the law as it is, or will dissenting voices be heard too? She writes:

    Henry Waxman, chairman of the [House] Committee on Energy & Commerce and Bobby Rush, chairman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, don’t want any reasonable amendment and are refusing to allow any discussion.

    They don’t want more hearings. They don’t want more talk. They want compliance. Waxman and Rush are the original sponsors of CPSIA, so you can see why they don’t want the damage they’ve caused to go on the record.

  • Attorney Sandra Ezell, Bowman & Brooke: “There are a lot of excellent products and excellent companies” that won’t survive CPSIA even though “they basically had no dog in the fight”. [Inside Counsel]

Public domain illustration: Ruth Mary Hallock, Grandma’s Graphics.

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Thrift stores, the day after

by Walter Olson on February 11, 2009

The Houston thrift shop in the video above is by no means alone. Elsewhere in the country, many resale stores are either closing their children’s sections entirely or drastically curtailing the line of goods they carry. Among them is Goodwill of Kansas (press release):

Painted toys and clothing with metal clasps or fasteners — including blue jeans, coats and hooded jackets for children 12 and younger — were pulled from store shelves Monday night, said Gayle Goetz, vice president of development for Goodwill Industries Easter Seals of Kansas.

The move affects 14 Goodwill stores in Kansas, including three in Wichita and one in Maize.

“We kept hoping we’d get some guidance, so we waited,” Goetz said. “We had our legal committee look at it last night and determined that there’s just too much liability.”

Half the supply of children’s clothing is gone at Omaha-area Goodwill for similar reasons (KPTM video).

At the same time, many other thrift stores nationwide are for the moment proceeding with business as usual, leaving kids jeans’, plastic playthings, pre-1985 books and other suspect items on the shelves, whether because they are breezier about taking on risks of liability, because they are unfamiliar with the law, or because they figure its terms are too irrational to actually be enforced. And even when they are withdrawing items from sale, some, like Goodwill of Kansas, are placing them into storage in the expectation that Congress will see reason (insert joke of choice here) and act to change the law soon.

Others, especially stores that specialize in kids’ resale, are thinking of closing their doors because of CPSIA or have already done so. “I have everything to lose,” said owner Kasey Brown in Ionia, Mich., who closed her Hey Baby Boutique a few days ago. (See also Maine and Arkansas items from our recent 50-state roundup).

One presumably unintended consequence will be to deprive nonprofit community and religious groups of millions of dollars in revenue with which they had pursued worthy causes. In the Charlotte area alone, kids’ resale at Goodwill is a $2 million business that supports job-training programs, the local director says. In an Indiana newspaper, a Salvation Army source is quoted as saying that the CPSIA blow could wipe out more than 16,000 places in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs supported by the stores.

In Bend, Oregon, according to ABC affiliate KOHD, consignment store Stone Soup decided to take the unusual step of screening its stock for lead using the X-ray fluorescence method. It cost $1,500 a week to rent the equipment, 30 percent of tested items failed (lots of zippers, rhinestones and skateboards out there with lead content), and the store found itself having to fill out scads of paperwork since each failure had to be reported to Washington under the law’s defect-notification provision.

In his stump speech five years ago, presidential candidate John Edwards (as Alex Tabarrok noted at the time) was

fond of empathizing with the plight of a 10-year old girl “somewhere in America,” who goes to bed “praying that tomorrow will not be as cold as today, because she doesn’t have the coat to keep her warm.”

As John Tierney of the New York Times countered, however, whatever real economic problems America had in 2004, children going without serviceable winter clothes because their parents lacked money was not high on the list: “The second-hand children’s coats that remain in America typically sell for about $5 in thrift shops.”

Way to solve that problem, Congress.

More: Thrift-store shutdowns in Florida and Kansas, “truckloads” removed from Goodwill stores in Louisiana, shelf-clearings and disruptions in Virginia, upstate New York and Waco, Texas. Tucson resaler Casa de los Ninos reports taking a $70,000 hit from inventory suddenly rendered worthless. That can’t be easy to incorporate into the economics of running such a place, but maybe the owner can just go without taking a salary for a year or two. I’m sure some CPSIA proponents will say it’s his own fault for not informing himself better about the law in advance.

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CPSIA and vintage books

by Walter Olson on February 10, 2009

As readers are aware, the Consumer Product Safety Commission yesterday advised thrift stores and other resellers and distributors of used goods to discard (unless they wished to test for lead or take other typically unpractical steps such as contacting manufacturers) children’s books printed before 1985 and a very wide range of other children’s products, including apparel and playthings.
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According to a commenter at a very busy Etsy thread on the subject, stores are already beginning to act on this advice:

I just came back from my local thrift store with tears in my eyes! I watched as boxes and boxes of children’s books were thrown into the garbage! Today was the deadline and I just can’t believe it! Every book they had on the shelves prior to 1985 was destroyed! I managed to grab a 1967 edition of “The Outsiders” from the top of the box, but so many!

People who deal more systematically in children’s books for a livelihood now face unpleasant choices. From our comments section, Valerie Jacobsen:

We own a small, local used bookstore and have been selling used books on the Internet since 1995.

Last year we shipped over 4500 used books to nearly 50 countries. (Note that CPSIA not only regulates distribution and sale but export as well.)

Our bookstore is the sole means of income for our family, and we currently have over 7000 books catalogued. In our children’s department, 35% of our picture books and 65% of our chapter books were printed before 1985.

Many of our older children’s books have painted decorative titles and other cover embellishment, which decoration is an extremely small quantity and which may or may not contain over 600 ppm lead. (The limits for each accessible part or paint layer are going to 300 ppm in August and 100 ppm in 2011.)

We have read the legislation, called our representative, called our senator, contacted the CPSC (no answer), read all of the CPSC press releases, and contacted a lawyer. We still honestly have no idea what is legal to sell, but we cannot simply discard a wealth of our culture’s nineteenth and twentieth children’s literature over this.

And from the same commenter today, following up after the CPSC’s issuance of guidance to small businesses last night:

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.

To which commenter Carol Baicker-McKee responds:

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).

A “relabel everything as collectible” strategy is, however, of limited legal help to retailers, because the law provides that they are liable if they sell a product which will commonly be understood as destined for use by children, whether or not they label it as such.

Deputy Headmistress at Common Room, who has been a key CPSIA blogger, deals in second-hand books and has now pulled many of her listings off Amazon; she has a big roundup as well as this. She also points out, citing testing done by Jennifer Taggart, that color illustrations in some old children’s books do flunk the new and stringent rules set by CPSIA for lead content; this does not necessarily mean they pose any hazard to actual children, provided the children use the books for reading and visual enjoyment rather than as something to chew, lick, or devour holes through, Very-Hungry-Caterpillar style. There continues to be an extreme shortage (as in: zero) of cited instances of children in this country being in fact poisoned by the lead in old book illustrations.

Design Loft carefully examines some of the implications for libraries, fiscal and otherwise, of trying to CPSIA-proof pre-1985 holdings. For weeks now librarian and bookseller groups have been sounding the alarm about the law’s coverage of books: Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly and earlier, and ZRecommends, the American Library Association and more (PDF), Rick Woldenberg. Perhaps this activism helped stimulate the CPSC’s “post-1985 = relatively safe” guidance, but that guidance has only served to underscore the corresponding message of “pre-1985 = not legally safe”.

More: Mark Riffey, Iain Murray, CEI “Open Market”. And the American Library Association, contrary to what was heard earlier, is now taking the position that the law does not apply to libraries unless it hears otherwise. I think at this point if I were them I would take that position too, wouldn’t you?

More: Reactions from Houston criminal defense blogger Mark Bennett at Defending People and again at Blawg Review #199, Carter Wood at NAM ShopFloor and again, David Foster at Chicago Boyz, Der Schweizer Narr (from Switzerland, in German), The Anchoress, Todd Seavey, Open Your Ears and Eyes, Blackadder’s Lair, John Holbo/Crooked Timber, 5 Kids and a Dog, International House of Bacon (CPSIA “the single worst piece of regulation in my lifetime”), Vivian Zabel/Brain Cells and Bubble Wrap, She’s Right, Joey and Aleethea, Dewey’s Treehouse, Sherry/Semicolon Blog, and Classic Housewife.

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RaggedyAnnAndyFalling
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.”

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Fifty glimpses of the law and its impact, plus one at the end for D.C:

Hawaii: Kailua doll shop closes despite CPSC enforcement stay (w/video); Honolulu Honey Baby shakes leis and hula skirts in dismay;
Alaska: “Why you should care about CPSIA, and what you can do about it”.
Washington: Don’t miss this helmet anecdote from Whitman County;
Oregon: Milagros Boutique of Portland: “One of our local vendors has decided to throw in the towel rather than wait and see if the CPSIA is amended.”
California: Thanks to stay, Whimsical Walney will close down only temporarily, not permanently;
quiltflagsmall
Utah: “We will have to lock our doors and file for bankruptcy,” said Shauna Sloan, founder of Utah-based children’s resale chain Kid to Kid. Glory Quilts: “My longest blog post ever — and the most angry“;

Colorado: Emily Werner: “Today, I have diaper making to do. But I also am ready to stuff envelopes“;
Idaho: Squares of Flair, from Eagle, is on the Endangered Whimsy list. And if you’re thinking of making something bulky for children, like a furniture line, have you considered that none of the nation’s lead testing labs are anywhere near Idaho?
Nevada: Let’s hope Sen. Harry Reid is listening to constituent Molly Orr;

Wyoming: For Kooky Dolls it’s a distinctly non-kooky issue;
Montana: Mark Riffey’s Business is Personal (Rescue Marketing) has helped focus blog attention;
Arizona: “No way” Other Mothers resale stores “can be completely compliant”;
New Mexico: Fashion Incubator and National Bankruptcy Day;

quilt2

Oklahoma: Farewell jingle dresses, powwow dance clothes, buckskin leggings, concho belts and other Native American celebratory kids’ gear;
Texas: Distress sale at My Pink Zebra Boutique in Katy;
Kansas: Owner of Baxter Springs company that makes organic nursing pillows doesn’t think threat of being “hauled off to prison” is very constructive;
Nebraska: Omaha-connected Baby Leather Moks is on Endangered Whimsy list;
North Dakota: Sunrise Hill Decor, making blocks for play or display, is member of the Handmade Toy Alliance;
South Dakota: Question after our own heart: what would Laura Ingalls Wilder have thought of this law?

Iowa: I may know there are no phthalates or lead in that whimsical chenille baby bib, and you may know it, but have you documented it to the satisfaction of the wary retailer’s lawyers?
Minnesota: Things seem to be going great, with your product line featured on the Martha Stewart show. And then this happens (auto-plays video);
Missouri: Fleece scarves, going too cheap;
Illinois: List-keeping in Naperville. Oprah, please help!
Wisconsin: Owner of Jacobsen Books in Clinton is also worried about small-run adaptive devices used by special needs children;
Indiana: Rebecca Holloway gives ‘em a deserved slamming; doll outfits and hair bows;

Ohio: Nicer-than-mass-produced diaper covers; Toledo Physical Education Supply takes a hit;
quilt3
Michigan: Brandi Pahl wonders: What are they thinking?; NARTS efforts couldn’t save Ionia resale store;
Arkansas: Closing of A Kidd’s Dream consignment shop in Conway doesn’t seem to have done much to change Sen. Mark Pryor’s mind;
Louisiana: The stay: “Hope but no solution“, kids’ Mardi Gras masks;
Mississippi: Sen. Roger Wicker is co-sponsoring DeMint reform bill;
Alabama: About that stay: “Read the fine print“; at least the pink whale got adopted;
Florida: “Many stores have fallen for the false report from the media that consignment stores are exempt.”
Georgia: Thank you, 11 Alive News, for listening to consignment sellers;

Tennessee: eBay seamstresses and Spanish baby gift sellers watching with concern;
South Carolina: Rock and mineral kits: do not eat contents unless you are at least 12 years of age;
North Carolina: Quilt Baby appeals to reason;
Kentucky: Menace of soft texture block set probably overrated;

quilt4

Maine: Any reform will come too late for Farmington’s Blessed Baby Boutique, shut down last weekend;
New Hampshire: As Commerce Secretary, d’you think Sen. Gregg could help?
Massachusetts: Rob Wilson of Ashland, importer of earth-friendly toys, has done much to spread the word, and impact on libraries noted in Newburyport;
Vermont: “Somewhere in the neighborhood of 95 percent of the merchants on our site would have to shut down,” says Michael Secore of Craftsbury Kids, with co-owner Cecilia Leibovitz a major spreader of word about the law, ditto Barre’s Polkadot Patch;
Rhode Island: Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed “don’t seem terribly concerned“.
Connecticut: Stamford maker faces $400 testing bill for each $360 run of bibs and napkins, while paperback exchange owner in Bethel terms application of law “insane“;

New York: Issue has captured attention of book publishers, if not of certain newspaper publishers;
New Jersey: You made play food for kids out of felt? No wonder Rep. Waxman is so worried they’ll eat it!
Delaware: Wilmington store Yo-Yo Joe’s is a member of the Handmade Toy Alliance;
Pennsylvania: Going out on a limb, Somerset librarian contends most kids are old enough to know not to put the books in their mouths;
Maryland: The Baltimore Etsy Street Team is on the wing;
West Virginia: Project Linus, which does great charity work in the donation of quilts and blankets, puts on a brave face but its friends are worried;

Virginia: Back away from that ribbon hair bow slowly, now, and we’ll just wait for the hazmat team to arrive;

*District of Columbia: Almost forgot Washington, D.C.! Well, in Washington, D.C., it’s easy to get them to pay attention to problems like these. For example, less than a month ago, the offices of Reps. Henry Waxman and Bobby Rush were instructing colleagues that if they get calls from constituents “who believe they may be adversely impacted by the new law,” it was because the constituents had fallen victim to “confusion” and “inaccurate reporting”. The most important advocacy group behind the law, the implacable Public Citizen, has launched a new campaign to defend it from critics; it was PC’s David Arkush who in December notoriously assailed (scroll to #1) “hysteria” about the law on the part of crafters and small businesses, broadly hinting that they were serving as dupes and stooges of Big Toy interests — perish the thought that they might have figured the issue out on their own! Trial-lawyer-defense groups like the misnamed Center for Justice and Democracy (along with their friends) chimed in with the thought that critics of the law needed to “grow up” (no, don’t bother commenting). CPSC Commissioner Thomas Moore, hewing to a similar line, blames the ongoing ruckus on “orchestrated campaigns to undermine the Act” that “are sowing the seeds of confusion that are upsetting so many small businesses.” Lobbyists and trade associations for mass-production importers and merchandisers are eager to prove their cooperation with the powers that be: “We were early proponents of mandatory laws to require toy testing,” said a Toy Industry Association spokesman the other day.

Washington, D.C. always does so well at listening to the rest of the country.

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To cap a week of bewilderingly rapid developments, the Consumer Product Safety Commission yesterday announced new guidelines somewhat widening the scope of products that it will consider presumptively lawful to sell (unless a merchant is actually on notice that they contain hazards) when the law’s major provisions take effect three days from now, on Tuesday, Feb. 10. From a quick once-over — and all this is subject to correction by lawyers expert in the matter — the new guidelines appear most useful for the children’s publishing business and for makers of children’s garments and electronics, although fraught with difficult problems even for them; they do little to help many other businesses and small manufacturers affected by the law, and are most ominous as regards two major constituencies affected by the act, resale stores and public libraries.

First, a bit of background. In a February 4 post, “The Blame Game“, Rick Woldenberg has laid out the “noose-like” tightness with which the drafters of the CPSIA sought to prevent the CPSC from granting exemptions from the standards; they also provided that liability under the law would not be suspended just because a request for exemption was under consideration. In short, the CPSIA is purposely drafted to place many advantages in the hands of consumer groups or other litigants who might wish to challenge an exemption in court. Since the CPSC cannot be sure of having the last word — its attempt to carve out an exemption for pre-Feb. 10 phthalate inventories was just struck down — it would be incautious for producers or retailers to rely overmuch on its policy pronouncements, especially since, while it obviously has some discretion over its own enforcement efforts, it cannot prevent others (like state attorneys general) from bringing their own actions. One of those state AGs, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, just issued a press release crowing over the consumer groups’ phthalate victory and warning retailers, thrift stores presumably included, that “My office will take whatever steps are necessary [emphasis added] to ensure this phthalate ban is enforced.” (Note that while the phthalate ban was often argued for on the basis of the “precautionary principle” — even if no actual harm to humans has been proved, shouldn’t we alter the formulas for making the items to be safe rather than sorry? — Blumenthal & co. now seek to redefine millions of existing playthings in American homes as “toxic toys”.) It should be noted that private activist and lawyer groups often shop potential cases to state AGs’ offices, and in turn are made monetary beneficiaries of resulting fines and settlements (more on California’s CEH here).

In any event, the CPSC now edges into daring and legally uncharted territory by declaring that it will presumptively excuse not just untreated beige cotton, wool and other materials, but also dyed fabrics, as well as certain innocuous varieties of trim. This is of help to garment makers, who will still of course face possible legal exposure on their plastic buttons, metal snaps, and other nonfabric components. Electronics makers will benefit because the commission will adopt a more lenient view of when components are inaccessible, that is, not reachable by a child even after an effort to smash and break the object. Certain metals and alloys known not to contain lead will also be listed as presumptively safe. Finally, “ordinary” children’s books (it is not clear whether books with staples qualify) will be presumptively lawful if published since 1985.

Published since when?

That’s right, since 1985. It seems before that year some books were printed with lead-containing inks. None of the discussion I’ve seen of the issue seems to report that any American child has ever been injured by eating the ink in books. But the implication is pretty clear for books published before 1985: unless you’d care to put them through testing, title by title and edition by edition, it’s now legally safer to throw ‘em out. One might propose vast bonfires in public squares, if not for the fear of violating air quality regulations.

It is not unusual for small independent booksellers to have in inventory still-unsold books of pre-1985 vintage. Perhaps these can be saved from landfills through the use of stickers reading, “Sold as a collectible only — under no account to be used by persons under 12″, as sellers of, say, vintage plastic dolls may do. But that doesn’t solve the problem for libraries. Their holdings include millions of pre-1985 children’s books, and if they stock them in children’s sections and allow them to be checked out at children’s request, they can’t very well play the “adult collectible” card. Beyond that, book sales are a major source of financial support for libraries, and inevitably include many of those ultra-terrifying, handle-with-lab-gloves pre-1985 children’s books.

Finally, thrift and resale stores remain in an unenviable position. Relatively few of the children’s goods they sell are composed entirely of materials on the hastily-assembled safe list. Most of the garments have snaps, zippers or plastic buttons; most of the sports items, board games and action toys have metal, vinyl or plastic components that might possibly (even if they probably do not) contain some admixture of lead or phthalates; who knows whether the jigsaw puzzles or spiral-bound art pads were printed before 1985, or, for that matter, would count as a “book”? Don’t even ask about bikes, trikes, strollers, car seats, backpacks, or things with rhinestones. And now you’ve got Richard Blumenthal and his allies vowing to “take whatever steps are necessary” — armed with those $100,000 penalties and those jail terms — against anyone who sells or resells items that a short time ago were a normal and, so far as anyone has been able to prove, harmless part of childhood.

Further discussion from Common Room (with particular attention to pre-1985 books: “I think the CPSC just turned my library into contraband. Or something.”) and Ian at Musings of a Catholic Bookstore. Rumor has it that CPSC will issue further guidance on thrift stores and resellers on or before Tuesday, but as Common Room cautions, “There’s a Difference Between a Policy and a Law“.

P.S. Note, incidentally, that the phthalate ban applies to a different (and generally narrower) range of products than does the lead ban: in particular, playthings and child care items. Peas and Bananas has reprinted the details (& welcome Publisher’s Weekly readers).

Public domain image: Grandma’s Graphics, Mabel Betsy Hill.

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Rick Woldenberg has been looking into it:

It’s certainly true that children have been checking books out of libraries for many, many years with only paper cuts to show for their reckless behavior. And thrift stores have sold children’s clothing and strollers for years without incident, but apparently no one knew the “dangers” that lurked within. Indeed, all of these items have been considered safe until February 10, when magically they will become unsafe unless proven otherwise.

According to reports from the field, zippers and snaps on kids’ garments are among the components most likely to flunk the new CPSIA standards. In all probability, millions of existing, already sold garments would flunk for similar reasons. Yet have CPSIA advocates pointed to even a single instance in which an American child has been poisoned by garment zippers or snaps? Could this be because kids do not as a rule detach and eat zippers and snaps? “Why aren’t we seeing many claims of injury from all the dangerous children’s products still legally available in the market?” Woldenberg asks. “Shouldn’t we be seeing outrageous injury statistics right now, currently”?

To put it differently, advocates seem to have taken a few genuine instances of injury from distinctive, atypical products (lead jewelry, powerful ball magnets) and used them to manufacture an imaginary crisis in the safety of children’s products generally. But there was never any general crisis of children’s product safety.

Following up, as part of a more general critique of CPSIA advocates’ misrepresentations — which should be read in its entirety, as it makes many other valuable points — Woldenberg analyzes the purportedly alarming data on product recalls involving children (Excel spreadsheet). Separately, Wacky Hermit has been looking at the recall figures as well. She concludes:

Of the 63 recalls that would have been prevented by CPSIA, only 1 resulted in an injury (a child ingested lead paint from a crib and had elevated blood levels of lead). This means that had CPSIA been in place for 2008, one child would have been helped.*

If we’re going to extrapolate one or a handful of injuries into a supposed national crisis, we might as well deduce a “children’s bathing crisis” from a bathtub drowning, a “children’s kitchen crisis” from a stovetop scalding or a “children’s transportation crisis” from a highway smashup. Common Room has a wrap-up which also should be read in full:

the majority of recalls (by an astronomical number) are not because a item has actually harmed anybody, but because the CPSC or the company determine that perhaps a particular item might possibly harm a child- and, while it flies against our intuitive, emotional reaction to the news that an item has lead, not all lead products are the same. The lead in a kid’s mini-bike tire valve is not as dangerous as the lead in paint on a toddler’s block. … The CPSIA treats real, imagined, and nonexistent threats exactly the same, and that is not sound policy.

*More: Jennifer Taggart writes to say that looking at past recalls does not make it possible to assess the law’s full effect since most items covered by CPSIA had not been subject to federal regulation (except under general catchall provisions). So the generalization quoted above should probably have included some limiting language to that effect.

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Trask at Living Dice explains; more here and here. And in response to a comment:

The “it does not apply to hobby games because they are for older people” probably will not fly. I cannot imagine the government will let industry decide what game is for over 12 year old players. If they did that even “Chutes and Ladders” will become “for 12 and older” to save on the testing. Well, that may be an exaggeration, but you get the idea. No, I think the books and games that are playable by early teens will probably get scooped up in this definition as well. Sadly, that covers most hobby games.

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