CPSIA: Big Deal, Little Brother

Alison Morris -- February 19th, 2009

Last Wednesday at the most recent meeting of the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council, we spent at least an hour discussing the most recent alterations to and debates surrounding the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. Had there not been other items of importance on the meeting’s agenda, our conversation about the well-intentioned but poorly executed Act that Congress so hastily passed could have lasted well into the evening.

We booksellers are feeling both besieged and stymied by the complicated mess of unclear rules and uncertain expectations the CPSIA places on all of us. As are librarians. As are book publishers. As are toy makers and crafters and artisans. As is everyone who sells used books or used toys or used clothing for kids. Everyone who manufactures or sells products for children, it would seem, rightly regards the CPSIA as the source of innumerable headaches and huge potential profit losses.

The consequences are especially dire for small manufacturers who are, as the regulations currently stand, expected to spend thousands of dollars to have their products tested for various levels of product safety. One bookseller I know recently received an e-mail from a guy she’s purchased hand-crafted wooden toys from for years. He can no longer sell her his handmade wares, because he can’t afford to have them tested.

For reasons beyond my comprehension, however, the New York Times has chosen to regard this matter as something flippant, inconsequential, and undeserving of their time. Yesterday on his popular law blog Overlawyered, Walter Olson rightly decried the paper’s unforgivably naive remarks on its editorial page about CPSIA and presented examples of professionals in several industries who are wringing their hands about changes that could spell doom and gloom to their businesses.

While I’m as big a believer as anyone in the importance of protecting our children from bad chemicals and evil carcinogens, I have (like most business professionals) been horrified at the blanket regulations the CPSIA applies to manufactured products (including books), with ZERO regard for whether or not any problems have previously arisen from the items covered by its rules. When was the last time you heard of a child getting lead poisoning from the print on a book’s pages, for example, whether or NOT that book was printed before 1985? Answer: you’ve never heard of such a thing, because as far as anyone’s aware, it hasn’t happened.

One of the statements made during our NECBA meeting last week was that there’s a difference between "non-compliant" and "not safe." Just because a book was printed before 1985, has not been tested for lead and phthalates and is therefore non-compliant with the CPSIA rules, that does not mean that the book is unsafe. But the scare this act could potentially start among members of the public may very well have them believing otherwise.

Since I first began learning about it, the over-reaching and harmfully inclusive regulations of the CPSIA have reminded me of one particular book: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. Among the many points Doctorow makes in this entertaining novel is the fact that sometimes in its efforts to enact laws aimed at increasing the public’s safety, a government makes its citizens less safe, or at least a lot more inconvenienced that should ever have been necessary. I was thinking maybe I ought to be sending copies of this book to members of Congress, but I’m now thinking I should start by sending a copy to the New York Times.

3 thoughts on “CPSIA: Big Deal, Little Brother

  1. stacy whitman

    Thanks for this post, which I saw linked from the Blue Rose Girls. It inspired me to write to my senator about the issue, which I’ve been meaning to do for a while. I linked them to this and to Overlawyered’s post on the issue. I doubt they’ll pay attention, but it makes me feel better to speak up.

  2. Kelly Schaub

    The CPSIA Q&A booklet for resellers says “Question 17: Can I sell vintage children’s books and other children’s products that are collectibles? Yes. Used vintage children’s books and other children’s products sold as collector’s items would not be primarily intended for children. Because of their value and age, they would not be expected to be used by children. Therefore, they do not fall into the definition of children’s product and do not need to comply with the lead limits.” So are they classifying books made prior to 1985 as vintage? They don’t say! Argh!

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