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Libraries warned of possible lead content in older books for children

Thursday, March 19, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Could a vintage, dog-eared copy of "The Cat in the Hat" or "Where the Wild Things Are" be hazardous to your children?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has raised that possibility in urging the nation's libraries to take children's books printed before 1986 off their shelves while the federal agency investigates whether the ink contains unsafe levels of lead.

Few, if any, libraries are complying, and many librarians are ridiculing the recommendation as alarmist. Even the nation's premier medical sleuths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, say any danger from lead in children's books is slight.

"We're talking about tens of millions of copies of children's books that are perfectly safe. I wish a reasonable, rational person would just say, 'This is stupid. What are we doing?'" said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association's Washington office.

Melissa Carr, director of the Daniel Boone Regional Library, said library staff will look to see how many books were printed prior to 1986, but a process for removal hasn't been established. Carr said the library's circulation reaches nearly 2 million items each year.

"I just don't think we have many titles on our shelves that were printed prior to 1986 due to high circulations," Carr said. "At this point, 23 years later with such a high circulation, it doesn't seem to be a problem."

Michelle Baumstark, communications coordinator for Columbia Public Schools, said the district is "waiting for recommendations from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which will be determining whether or not the ink in those books is hazardous." 

Lead poisoning has been linked to irreversible learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

A federal law passed in 2008 and effective Feb. 10 bans lead beyond minute levels in most products intended for children 12 or younger. It was passed after a string of toy recalls. The commission is interpreting the law to include books.

CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said libraries can safely lend any children's book printed in 1986 or later, by which time a growing body of regulations had removed lead from printer's ink. But the commission still must study the lead content in books printed before 1986. The commission delayed until 2010 the lead testing required as part of the law.

Until the testing is done, the nation's more than 116,000 public and school libraries "should take steps to ensure that the children aren't accessing those books," Wolfson said. "Steps can be taken to put them in an area on hold until the Consumer Product Safety Commission can give further guidance."

But Jay Dempsey, a health communications specialist at the CDC, said lead-based ink in children's books poses little danger.

"If that child were to actually start mouthing the book — as some children put everything in their mouths — that's where the concern would be," Dempsey said. "But on a scale of one to 10, this is like a 0.5 level of concern."

The publishing and printing industries set up a Web site for book publishers inDecember to post the results of studies measuring the lead in books and their components, such as ink and paper. Those results show lead levels that were often undetectable and consistently below not only the new federal threshold but also the more stringent limit that goes into effect August 2011.

Those findings were cited in a letter from the Association of American Publishers to the CPSC.

The American Library Association said it has no estimate of how many children's books printed before 1986 are in circulation. But typically, libraries don't have many, because youngsters wear down books, librarians said.

"Frankly, most of our books have been well-used and well-appreciated," said Rhoda Goldberg, director of the Harris County Public Library system in Houston. "They don't last 24 years."

Also, the lead is contained only in the type, not in the illustrations, according to Allan Adler, vice president for legal and governmental affairs for the Association of American Publishers.

Sheketoff said she heard of just two libraries that started to restrict access to children's books last month. One roped off the children's section; the other covered children's books with a tarp. Both libraries, which she declined to identify, stopped after being contacted by the association, she said.

"Communities would have a stroke if public libraries started throwing out hundreds and hundreds of books just because they came out before a certain copyright date," said Margaret Todd, librarian for the Los Angeles County system, which has 89 branches and about 3 million children's books. Todd said she expects the commission to develop reasonable standards that protect children.

Nathan Brown, a lawyer for the library association, said libraries should not even be subject to the law. He argued that Congress never wanted to regulate books and that libraries do not sell books and thus are not subject to the consumer products law.

Missourian reporters Joe Welsch and Whitney Wallace contributed to this report.


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