They’re Burning Books!

I have been an ostrich. I thought that someone, somewhere would see reason, fix a broken law, and everybody would live, if not happily ever after, at least happily free to do business and buy books in the United States of America.

Instead, the deadline has come and gone, and now they’re burning/trashing books. The Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act was signed into law six months ago. It was supposed to keep our kids from being poisoned by lead in toys.

“Under the law it is now illegal, as of yesterday, to sell or distribute any product–toy, book, clothes, electronic gadget, you name it–aimed primarily at children 12 and under without first having every accessible element in that product–fabric, appliques, ink, zippers, buttons, switches, doll hair, you name it–certified by a third-party lab (not, for instance, the zipper maker) as having less than 600 parts per million of lead. The law includes substantial criminal penalties and allows state attorneys general, as well as the Consumer Product Safety Commission, to enforce its provisions.”

Read more here. And here. (The Headmistress has been blogging about this law for over a month, and I, ostrich that I am, have done nothing.)

Yes, the law covers books. Yes, each book that is to be sold must be tested for lead content. Yes, this law includes used books. The Consumer Products Safety Commission has promised not to enforce testing provisions for another six months . . . while at the same time warning retailers not to sell anything, after February 10th, with unacceptable levels of lead. How exactly do you make sure your products don’t have too much lead if you don’t test? And how do you test every product if the testing costs a minimum of fifty dollars per product, and there aren’t enough labs to test everything anyway?

The answer: you don’t. Instead, it’s Fahrenheit 451, guys, and they are BURNING BOOKS, at the behest of the government. It doesn’t matter whether anyone meant for this giant, country-wide bonfire to happen or not. It doesn’t matter whether you think I’ve gone from being an ostrich to being an alarmist. It’s happening anyway.

My daughter works in a used bookstore. TODAY they pulled all the books from the children’s section that had any kind of metal or plastic or toy-like attachment, spiral bindings, balls or things attached, board books, anything that might be targeted under this law, and they very quietly trashed them all. I say “very quietly” because the bookstore had a meeting with employees and told them to be careful not to start a panic. If anyone asked what they were doing they were told to say that they were “rearranging their inventory.” No one was allowed to tell anyone about the new law, and no one was allowed to take any of the doomed-for-destruction books home or give them away.

The CPSC has, as of last week, made an exception for “ordinary children’s books printed after 1985.” Supposedly, some inks used before 1985 may have contained some lead. (However, the eight, nine, or ten year old reading a copy of Winnie the Pooh printed before 1985 would have to eat the book to get get any level of lead into their system. My four to twelve year olds don’t eat books. Do yours?) Right now, the bookstore where my daughter works is getting around the law by reclassifying their children’s books printed before 1985 as “vintage books” for adult collectors. Of course, this strategy is just that, a way of circumventing the law. That 1983 copy of Winnie the Pooh isn’t really vintage or collectible; it also isn’t dangerous to children.

It’s not just books, of course. Small businesses that make clothing and toys for children are going out of business. Thrift shops are destroying all their inventory of children’s merchandise because they fear being found with something that contains lead. And all this is happening in an economy that is having major issues in the first place. Are we crazy?

My husband asked me why this law was passed in the first place and why no one has fixed it. I think it was passed out of ignorance and fear, and now out of pride and inertia, no one wants to admit that they made a mistake.

Please call Congress, and tell them to fix this law. Many of these older children’s books are irreplaceable. The books are out of print, and no one even has the original manuscripts or printing plates. And it’s already too late for the books that were destroyed today and those that will be burned tomorrow.

By the way, the American Library Association says that the CPSIA doesn’t apply to libraries because . . . get this, no one has said yet that it applies to libraries. So, libraries don’t have to comply with the law unless . . . they do. And bookstores have to destroy or “reclassify” their books, but libraries can loan out these “possibly dangerous” books to children without fear of penalty.

Read more here. And somebody tell me that this horrible thing isn’t happening in the U.S.A.

42 thoughts on “They’re Burning Books!

  1. First of all, across the top of my browser it says, “They’re Burning Books! at Semicolon” I found that a bit ironic.

    Second of all, your right, this law is crap. My college paper did a story about it, and basically all the thrift stores are going to stop selling children’s merchandise. I understand the spirit of the law, but it’s not playing out well. Even the rep. we talked with said there needed to be changes. Sometimes, I think, Congress doesn’t follow it’s thoughts to their logical conclusion.

  2. Shauna

    I haven’t visited our local thrift stores yet to see if they have any kids’ items left. Their children’s book selection was already minimal, but every once in a while I would find a gem.

  3. Congress was never going to change this law so long as they could keep pointing fingers at the CPSC and people voters did not hold them accountable.

    You know what’s nearly as sad as the loss of those books? That bookstore could have used that purging as a teaching opportunity- they should have had camera crews there, the news, magazines, reporters- they should have taken pictures and spread them widely and publicly to get people to understand the harm and havoc Congress has caused with this incredibly shoddily written bill. At least then those books might not have died in vain.

  4. Oh- and did they pull at their children’s (12 and under) books printed before 1985? The CPSC pointedly specified that they could exempt only books printed after that date.

  5. When I first heard about this I couldn’t believe it. The most precious and enjoyed books I’ve read to my children are old 1930-1950s books. My kids don’t eat books either. I don’t live in the US but this is the strangest thing I’ve heard the US gov. do, it sounds more like something the Liberals would try to do here in Canada or the Socialist countries in Europe. I really hope this mess gets cleared up. What a travesty!

  6. Like you, I knew about the law but didn’t think it would actually come to that. Oh my. This is horrendous.

  7. I blogged about the law last month (mainly focusing on toys and clothes as to me an issue was that the word book does not exist in the law) and was accused of being reactionary and what is the word, can’t think of it, basically that I and others were making a mountain out of a molehill.

    Disucssions on HS chat groups also elevated to accusing some of being too hyper. Some said the law as described was so ridiculous it could not possibly be true.

    Sadly the bad state of the economy and this bailout bill seems to have occupied everyone’s minds and also the media. So this didn’t get enough press. Certainly the books have not been talked about much.

    The ALA also has not been too hyper about it.

  8. So far they haven’t pulled the pre-1985 children’s books at my daughter’s bookstore; they’re planning to reclassify them as vintage books for adults. However, the bookstore is rather large, for a bookstore, part of a chain, and just finding all the pre-1985 books and then physically moving them to another part of the store would be a big job. So, I think they’re in denial about that part of the law.

  9. I suppose we could all start a letter-writing campaign, and see if that can get this horrible law rewritten. I understand why they did it — as a knee-jerk reaction to the lead from China toys scandal last year — but it’s poorly written. And has unintended (and stupid) consequences. I do all my shopping at thrift stores, and if I can’t get kids clothes, toys or books there… well, my kids are just going to have to go naked and play with the stuff they already have. Thank heavens for libraries (unless this law is going to cover them, too… no one can borrow books that have lead in them??). Sigh. I HATE our litigious society. Maybe we should make a law banning all lawyers and lawsuits??

  10. It is hard to convince people that this law applies to books, even books on the library shelf, because it is just so unbelievable. Thank you for writing about it. Just so you know it is much worse than it sounds. It costs on the low end $50 to test each and every component part of a book. The testing of the book would cost on average $500. Not something an average library could manage. The stay of enforcement is for one year, but it is being challenged in court by the same people who helped write the law in the first place.

  11. Megan

    I was very surprised to read this is happening at a used bookstore, because the CPSIA has been clarified (or so I thought) to exclude sellers of used/thrift items from the ban. The release stating this can be seen at this website: I was another “reactionary” when I first learned of the act, and contacted all my legislators to protest the far-reaching and unintended consequences of it. I was much comforted by this release… now, hearing what’s going on at your daughter’s bookstore, I’m wondering what’s up???

  12. Megan, the bookstore managers and owners are afraid that they will inadvertently sell something with lead in it and get sued. Even if the CPSC won’t come after them, individual customers may, or so they fear. THese books probably don’t contain any lead at all, or such minimal amounts that it wouldn’t hurt anyone, but the fact of the law, whether or not it will be enforced, is having drastic, although possibly unintended consequences. And the CPSC won’t say definitively that it won’t prosecute when the extended time limit is up.

  13. DeputyHeadmistress, even if that bookstore had used this as a teaching and news opportunity, most papers and stations [b]would not have been interested[/b].

    I own a used bookstore. In my children’s area I have yellow “DO NOT CROSS” crime scene tape and orange and yellow hazard cones up. Does anyone care about this? Aside from a few customers who are inspired to call, NO.

    I called most of my contacts again yesterday to let them know that *children’s clothing* are now going in the trash and *irreplaceable children’s books* are now going in the trash. I have urged all my reps and news outlets that [b]time is of the essence here[/b] BUT MOST DO NOT CARE.

    Next fall, I will be VERY surprised if we don’t have a shortage of attractive, used clothing in the thrift stores. There are going to be parents deciding between food and winter coats. If only we could keep this clothing out of the landfills now, we could keep kids warm next winter!

    I had an interesting call to the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy this morning. And then I made my daily the rounds of calling. I put a list of places to call in one of today’s blog posts at

    Thomas Hill Moore of the CPSC says that 1985 is the bright line and that older books should be “sequestered” until more testing is done. Based on XRF results that have been reported to me and some old lab-testing results, older books do contain tiny amounts of lead. (That’s why the old pictures are so brilliant compared to the washed-out-reproductions of the same paintings today.)

    Testing won’t put us booksellers in the clear; it’s more likely that it will put us smack dab in the middle of “knowing violation.”

    Here’s the deal. NO CHILD on record has ever been poisoned by a BOOK. How do we “prevent” something that’s never happened? Do we need to damage entire industries and destroy jobs for something that has NEVER HAPPENED?

    1000 children drown every year in the U. S. This is tragic and, what’s more, it’s an event that actually does happen.

    But do we really want a Consumer Product Swimming Impairment Act (CPSIA) to prevent all kids from attempting to learn to swim? I really don’t think we do.

  14. Megan, check the fourth paragraph of that release.

  15. Oh my. This makes SO MUCH “sense”. I couldn’t figure out why the shelves of our local bookstore were so empty when I went in just the other day. I was wondering what the heck was going on. I was wondering if it was the economy and they just hadn’t restalked their selves or . . .? My word. Makes me want to go ransack every bookstore I can find and snatch up everything I see that we might POSSIBLY want in the future….

    Wow, wow, wow.

  16. The stay did not apply to retailers. They cannot sell items that surpass lead limits, and they cannot know this without testing.
    The stay also very pointedly excluded books published before 1985-
    The stay also does not apply to the fifty states’ attorneys general, who have been given new powers of enforcement with this law, and the CPSC’s stay doesn’t apply to them.
    I think four states have AGs who have said they will be enforcing it, stay or no stay, and the rest have pretty much not said anything.
    There is no lasting remedy to this outside of Congress reforming the law, or better yet repealing it and starting from scratch.

  17. Thank you for being brave enough to admit you were wrong about the matter, and are now helping spread the word! I am almost physically ill. I’m a lover of old books and started deliberately collecting many old gems as a young teen with my own carefully earned tiny bits of money!!! I believe if this law is allowed to stand, they will come for the books in our own homes next. I know people might think that is alarmist, but I truly believe that will be next.

    I also homeschool my 4 kids, and one of our fav. things to do as a family is find an old bookstore and browse for hours in it. This law will ruin that. My kids are furious and scared–they don’t want to lose their chance to read old favorites!

    I put an excerpt of yours and a link to your post on my site. Hope that was OK!

  18. This is ridiculous! I guess all the thrift stores that are tossing books should go donate them to the library! If there’s a loophole to outright waste, take it while they can.

    Can’t remember for sure, but I believe it’s in Europe where the companies that make the pieces for the clothing/books/whatever have to be sure their products are within levels, not the companies that make the final product. The way the law is written punishes the wrong people.

    It’s like putting us all in straight jackets so we won’t hurt each other.

    I sell children’s jewelry online, and yah, this wiped out about half of what I sell. I’ve written all my congressmen and get some really neat blah blah blah letters back. Yes, this was done to prevent more lead products from China, but they’ve killed a lot of unnecessary business here in the good ol’ USA. My kids don’t eat books either, and I always tell my customers that if their girls are chewing on their jewelry to take them off so they don’t break.

    I would love to keep selling them, but crystal is lead-based, just the nature of the beast. It wouldn’t be a problem unless it’s swallow, if then.

  19. Last night it dawned on me that it is hard to tell when a book is printed. Don’t they just have copyright dates? Older copyrighted books may not tell the printing date. I am thinking of popular books like Eric Carle picture books that may have a pre-1985 copyright date but were just printed last year. I just checked some of my books and some just have a copyright date and one had a date two years later than the copyright date which I assume was the printing date.

    Does someone know the answer to that?

  20. Greg

    A few additional bits to add to this discussion:

    – The CPSC has announced a one year stay on testing requirements for retailers, but the state attorneys general are not legally bound by that stay. If one AG takes the position that the testing stay is unlawful and a court agrees with him, the stay on testing will disappear.

    – Starting in August 2009, retailers will no longer be allowed to do their own testing. The testing has to be done using a wet testing method that destroys the object being tested. So once the stay on testing disappears there is literally no way that used children’s books can be sold legally (except as collector’s items), because the only legal method for certifying them safe will destroy them.

    Nonetheless I urge any vendors of such books to not destroy or trash them. Pack them up and put them in storage. This part of the law is so insane I can’t imagine that it will be left that way, and I think that it won’t be too long before you’ll be able to sell these books again.

  21. Today I noticed a small box of books that had been left out at the curb of a thrift shop here in Vermont. All but two were children’s books printed prior to 1985.

  22. I had a friend just e-mail me after talking with her husband about whether they “believed it or not.” He said he didn’t, and told her to check snopes. Please go there, search for CPSIA, then e-mail them like I did.

    The original claim they state is that stores will prohibit the resell of things that haven’t been tested for lead and phthalates, which they declare as FALSE. As a blanket statement sure it is false, because yes, they can sell things that haven’t been tested. But right in the article it states that they do have to follow regulations and avoid selling things that would exceed the lead content because “they could face civil and/or criminal penalties.” They need to change their decision to true and false at least.

    Send them a note!

  23. Micha Elyi

    “1000 children drown every year in the U. S. … But do we really want a Consumer Product Swimming Impairment Act (CPSIA) to prevent all kids from attempting to learn to swim? I really don’t think we do.”Valerie Jacobsen 2/12/2009 at 5:12 pm

    Valerie, tens of thousands of swimming pools at health clubs, apartment complexes, hotels, motels, and schools have been closed for retrofitting of their existing safe equipment with new, more expensive almost-as-safe equipment to meet the requirements of the federal Virginia Graeme Baker law. Why? Because the spawn of an ex-U.S. Senator couldn’t be bothered to watch their brat, so the brat drowned. (Laws named after children, especially girls, are usually a dumb idea and this law proves the rule.)

    To quote P.J. O’Rourke’s advice about America’s only native criminal class, “forget term limits, we need jail.” Until the happy day on which that much needed reform occurs, anyone who ever voted Democrat should just consider their heartbreak over all the books to be burned to be part of their penance.

  24. Jason

    I’m just glad my daughters have a collection of around 500 books already. We’ve been buying on ebay and at garage sales for the last 4 years. My youngest daughter will eat a book and I’m not worried. I’m more worried that kids won’t be able to read great books. This country is getting dumber by the minute. The law of unintended consequences. Pretty soon someone is going to say that every copy of The Constitution and Federalist Papers are printed with lead.

  25. anoni

    I’m taking my cue from Charlton Heston. They’ll get my books when they pry them “out of my cold dead hands”

  26. Good article, thanks for your information!

  27. This story is also discussed on Semicolon’s blog here.

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