Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lead raises questions about children's books

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

Probably not, according to the nation's premier medical sleuths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But a new federal law banning more than minute levels of lead in most products intended for children 12 or younger — and a federal agency's interpretation of the law — prompted at least two libraries last month to pull children's books printed before 1986 from their shelves.

Lead poisoning has been linked to irreversible learning disabilities and behavioral problems, and lead was present in printer's ink until a growing body of regulations banned it in 1986. The federal law, which took effect Feb. 10, was passed last summer after a string of recalls of toys.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has interpreted the law to include books but has neither concluded that older books could be hazardous to children nor made any recommendations to libraries about quarantining such tomes, agency chief of staff Joe Martyak said Tuesday.

Still, the agency's interpretation itself has been labeled alarmist by some librarians.

"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.

A CPSC spokesman told The Associated Press in a recent interview that until more testing is done, the nation's more than 116,000 public and school libraries should take steps to ensure that children are kept away from books printed before 1986.

After the spokesman's comments appeared Tuesday in an AP story, Martyak said the spokesman "misspoke" about the agency's stance on older books and younger children.
"We're not urging libraries to take them off the shelves," Martyak said. "It's true the CPSC is investigating whether the ink contains unsafe levels of lead in children's books printed before 1986."

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 last December 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 the more stringent limit that goes into effect in 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 are hard on 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."

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