Dangerous Until Proven Safe

I have been negligent in covering some of the nuttiness that is resulting from the CPSIA, the law last year passed in response to the Chinese toy recalls that allows greatly increased regulatory authority (requiring extensive testing of every lot, aircraft-manufacturing-like supply chain documentation, etc) over the entire toy distribution chain for certain perceived health threats like lead and pthalates.  Worse, the law provides enormous openings for third party groups to sue for ridiculous amounts of money over unproven health risks.  It is not clear to me a group suing under this law even needs to prove injury, but just some mythical small percentage chance of potential injury.

What all the targets of this law have in common are absurd overreactions to trivial risks of ingesting microscopic quantities of certain substances like lead.  Recently, a whole bunch of mini-bikes were taken off the market because 12-year-olds might suddenly start gnawing on the engine parts and ingest some lead.  For reasons that are not really clear to me, this country finds it impossible to rationally assess risks -- we have schools shut down with hazmat teams called out to clean up the mercury when someone drops a thermometer in the lab, while day after day the school probably serves fish in the cafeteria with higher mercury content than any kid would get from being near a broken thermometer.

Overlawyered has been all over this story, for example here.  The most recent episode came the other day when an EPA spokesman suggested that all libraries needed to pull books from the shelves printed before 1985 because there might be a billionth of a gram of lead in the ink:

It's been a day of dramatic developments on the CPSIA-and-libraries front. An Associated Press article out yesterday quoted Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) as officially urging the nation's libraries to remove from their shelves children's books printed before 1986 until more is known about their possible dangers from lead in their inks, dyes and pigments:

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."

Within the day, however, commission chief of staff Joe Martyak said that Wolfson had "misspoke", and that the commission has neither concluded that the books might be dangerous nor recommended that libraries take any action. An early version of the AP story is here, with the Wolfson quote, and a later version here, for purposes of comparison.

It's not as if Wolfson was making things up here. As readers will recall, one of the two CPSC commissioners, Thomas Moore, called weeks ago for some undefinedly large share of old books to be "sequestered" from children for the time being. However, the full commission has left the issue up in the air rather than endorsing Moore's view.

  • Jim Collins

    The Head Librarian at our local Public Library has been heard saying that she can finally purge the Children and Young Adult section of all of those "politically incorrect" books because of this BS law. She is also trying to get "emergency funding" from our County, so that these books can be replaced. Some of the titles on their way out are "The Hardy Boys","Nancy Drew" and " Bobsey Twins" series.

  • http://heartkeepercommonroom.blogspot.com deputyheadmistress

    My library is pulling books and boxing them in response to the law as well (and the ALA knows this, I've told them).
    Valerie Jacobs has a long list of the statements coming out of the CPSC that contradict their recent 'retraction.'
    http://bookroomblog.com/2009/03/18/cpsc-retracts/

  • Mike

    My question is: With all these hazards, how in God's name did the human race survive this long? The answer, of course, is that while the risks are miniscule, but the cost of addressing them is borne by somebody else.

  • Henry Bowman

    I think that the reason that the country cannot seem to rationally assess risks is because (a) a very significant fraction of the population is incapable of critical thinking and (b) a large fraction, perhaps one-third, of Democrats are literally insane. Item (a) is party-independent, as it simply reflects the ongoing failure of the school system. I suspect that item (b) is due to group-think for the most part.

  • The other coyote

    When I read this stuff, I feel like I've entered a parallel universe. What is really making me insane, though, is how nobody else I come in contact with seems to notice. I WORK for an oil & gas E&P company and nobody but the senior execs seems to have noticed that Obama plans to pay for his budget out of our intangible drilling costs deductions. Most days in this country, I feel like I'm spitting into the wind.

  • L.J. Brooks

    Heck, when I was going to school in the early '70s during science class we would play around with mercury like it was play dough! We had big globs of it rolling around on our bare hands and no one died of mercury poisoning!!