Friday, April 03, 2009

CPSIA and Vintage Books: My Comment to Consumer's Union

Drawing by Jessie Willcox Smith from The Little Mother Goose, with thanks to Project Gutenberg  

Consumer's Union blog has a very inaccurate account of the rally (really quite bizarre at times - don't know what rally they attended, but it wasn't the same one I did). You can read it here. 

There are lots of great comments from people who were really there, but I had to add my two cents too (especially since so far they haven't seen fit to post my comments, though in fairness they've posted plenty of others that are critical):

Um, you forgot to mention speakers like me. I do not represent any organization or industry, I paid my own way to the rally and gave up a day of work to attend and speak at it, and what's more, I was even arguing contrary to my self-interest. I write and illustrate new children's books, the ordinary kind currently enjoying a stay of enforcement - it would be to my advantage to have libraries and schools throw out their old books and have to buy new ones like mine to replace them. I was there to argue for what I believe is best for children, particularly for the most disadvantaged in our society who suffer disproportionately from lead poisoning. This law gets it wrong on so many fronts.


I have my doctorate in clinical child psychology from the University of Virginia and graduated magna cum laude from Yale with distinction in psychology. I am not an idiot and I am well aware of the potential hazards of lead poisoning for children, especially for the youngest ones. I also know that the research on lead is more complex than is commonly acknowledged by consumer organizations like yours. The truth is that lower SES kids are at greater risk of lead poisoning, and this discrepancy has persisted even as efforts by the CDC and other agencies to reduce sources of environmental lead (in lower income areas as well as others) have been enormously successful. Part of the reason that lower SES kids are at greater risk is because they still live disproportionately in older homes with lead-containing dilapidated paint and to play in areas with lead in the soil (the CPSIA does nothing to help with those on-going issues). But there are many other variables that also put low SES kids at greater risk -- and I can assure you that higher rates of exposure to books, high quality handmade toys, bicycles and ATVs, ballpoint pens, organic clothing, and one of kind artwork are NOT among them - and yet these blameless items are disproportionately being affected by CPSIA, which also means they won't be around in 5 years to be passed along through thrift stores and give-away programs to kids who could really use them. Instead the law does NOTHING to address the very real measures we could take to reduce the absorption of and harm by lead in the young children from lower SES populations, including improving their nutrition (low calcium and iron levels lead to higher absorption rates), providing support to improve parenting practices (neglected and abused kids suffer higher rates of lead poisoning even when controlling for SES; and kids whose parents have poor housekeeping practices have higher rates, again controlling for SES), and improving the mentally stimulating quality of the child's environment through providing high quality child care, book distribution programs coupled with instruction on sharing books with children, and programs to distribute toys that promote physical exercise (like bicycles) and encourage brain development (a mentally stimulating environment both prevents and treats the harmful effects of lead at low to moderate blood lead levels). The CPSIA not only doesn't help with these proven effective measures, it actually hinders them, putting an end to bike distribution programs, closing down the children's sections in affordable thrift stores, and raising the prices of all consumer goods for children, so that low income parents have less money to spend on high quality food, toys and books. By banning the sale of inexpensive older used books, removing them from libraries, schools and daycares, and raising the costs of the new ones purchased by literacy programs, the CPSIA snatches books and the chances for better school achievement from the hands of low income kids as surely as the Grinch plucked the books and toys from the Whos down in Whoville.


Way to go, Grinch.


P.S. You are correct that the law only addresses children's products. But if this law were in fact necessary, then you'd have to ban lead in adults' products as well. Children are actually at the greatest risk of lead poisoning prenatally, when it's Mom's exposure that matters, and they further come into contact with items intended for adults or the whole family every day. When you decide that minimal lead exposure is important enough to take away American's automobiles (aka lead machines - with lead in everything from the batteries to the steel to the brakes to the weights used to balance the wheels) then I'll start to think you at least believe in what you are saying.


I'd also like to see you recommend that all American families discard all their current children's products and household goods unless they get them tested - obviously necessary if you believe that retroactive application of the law is so essential that even during a severe recession thrift stores can't sell a pair of jeans to a 10 year old.


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Anonymous said...

Hi. I read a comment you posted on a blog a while back on the issue of lead in old books, and whether there is a danger of exposure, saying that there have been studies done showing "that saliva is not acid enough to get the lead to come out of the ink...." Could you reference this study for me? I'm interested in assuaging some of my hypochondriacal fears that have cropped up because of this. I'm interested in a more detailed examination of this issue than the information I've found on news and blog sites, but I don't know how to pursue this information.

Thanks for your assistance.

Carol Baicker-McKee said...

Hi Anonymous,
I link to the study I referred to in the body of the article. In case the link didn't work for you, you can find the abstract here: To obtain the whole article, you can check with your public library, which may be able to obtain it for you for free; otherwise, you'll have to pay to read the whole thing. I can't legally reprint it for you here.
There have not been a ton of studies done on lead leaching from inks - which is understandable since there are virtually NO cases of lead poisoning traced back to printed materials generally and as far as I have been able to determine after extensive research, including looking at all the cases of lead poisoning catalogued by the CDC, none linked to books (which use different inks and printing processes from magazines and books). In fact, the only case I found (on the CDC website) linking printed material and lead as a source of lead poisoning is a case of a young child who apparently contracted lead poisoning many years ago after his family heated their home by burning homemade logs from old newspapers.
Modern U.S. newspaper inks do not pose a threat. First, most of the ink is black, which has never contained lead. Second, the modern colored inks are usually soy-based and thus safe. See, for example,
Similarly, books published in the U.S. have not been allowed to contain lead since the 1980s and most did not contain lead even before that. Nearly all books published in the U.S. use soy-based inks which are inherently lead-free.
A hyper-cautious parent or caregiver might decide to keep books published before 1980 out of the hands and mouths of babies and toddlers. But there's no evidence that older kids should be barred from reading even vintage books where the occasional color (usually reds or yellows) tests as high for lead. (And keep in mind, it's usually an isolated color on a page - not the whole book - that exceeds the parts per million allowed.) Normally a child would have to eat a LOT of books to raise his lead level significantly.
One other caveat: the inks used to print on bread bags and candy wrappers and other plastics are different - and some have been found to have lead levels. That lead can be transferred (I believe by friction) to the food contained in the wrapper, and then ingested and absorbed by someone who eats the contaminated food (stomach acid, unlike saliva, can leach lead) - see the first article I referenced.
P.S. The comments I deleted from this post were spam - ads for viagra and whatnot - not from people contradicting my assertions in the post.

Carol Baicker-McKee said...

Oops - sorry. The post I was referring to with the link to the study on lead and saliva was actually a different one from my blog. You can find it here: