A little over a month after the first key provisions of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act went into effect on February 10, things have calmed down significantly. New and used booksellers, libraries and publishers continue to lobby Congress and the Consumer Products Safety Commission for an exemption for books, and they are still confused about many of the Act’s provisions. In the meantime, however, they have taken steps to comply.
“We certainly aren’t in the same kind of turmoil we were before the February 10 deadline,” says Leah King, quality assurance specialist at book-and-toy cataloger Chinaberry.
Most booksellers are now comfortable selling ordinary paper children’s books printed in 1986 and beyond. “My understanding is that books intended for children under 13 and printed after 1985 are exempt from the testing requirements,” says Sally Lesser, proprietor of Henry Bear’s Park, a toy store that sells a significant number of books. “So I don’t think many booksellers are worried about regular new paper-based books at this point.”
Shortly before February 10, the CPSC issued a statement that while both new and old books had to comply with the law’s limits on lead and phthalates, it would not enforce the law for ordinary books printed after 1985—with the caveat that states’ Attorneys General also have the power to enforce. This, along with the growing body of test evidence finding children’s books to be safe, and the fact that many publishers are testing their books and certifying their safety even though not required to, has eased the book community’s fears.
Novelty books and book-plus items, as well as other non-book merchandise carried by children’s bookstores, have to meet all the Act’s requirements and compliance will be enforced. For these products, many retailers are demanding Certificates of Compliance, which signify that vendors have taken steps to ensure product safety; CoCs and product testing are not required under the Act until next February. Booksellers say most larger publishers and distributors are either providing blanket compliance statements or CoCs for individual books, both for new products and, in some cases, items shipped late last year.
Older products have been more problematic. These, too, have to meet the law’s lead limits of less than 600 parts per million (declining to 300 ppm this August and 90 ppm in August 2011), and it is often cost-prohibitive for vendors to test them. “We have discarded some product that was in our stores on February 10, especially in risky categories, like jewelry,” says Lesser, who adds that she also disposed of her rubber duckies, which can contain phthalates (a type of acid used as a plastic softener), last November. “Now we’re back in the rubber ducky business, thankfully, and all are phthalate-free.”
King points out that tracking down CoCs for existing inventory is extremely time-consuming, and that not all vendors provide them for older goods as they typically do for new products. “At least now, when you ask, there’s somebody who is doing it or working on it,” she says. “Last fall you would just get a blank stare.” Chinaberry has disposed of a few items, donated some to centers for adults, and temporarily pulled several products until they were deemed safe; one vendor took back an item. The company also has stopped selling craft kits it assembled from multiple vendors’ products, at least for the time being.
Lesser notes that a few vendors have helped out by offering partial credit on products they can’t prove meet CPSIA requirements. Henry Bear’s Park is now writing on all purchase orders that the product shipped must meet the August 2009 safety standards of the CPSIA. It also is requesting all vendors submit their own general compliance statement or sign Henry Bear’s. “We have not met with resistance on this last point,” Lesser says.
A few smaller and international vendors have pulled out of the U.S. market because of the expense associated with the Act. Chinaberry had to stop the presses on its spring catalogue and pull the back cover because the product became unavailable, and other strong-selling items had to be deleted as vendors reduced their number of SKUs.
Used Books, Unique Concerns
At Half Price Books, over 50% of inventory consists of used books purchased from the public, with the rest remainders and overstock. “We want to be very cautious and proactive,” says executive v-p Kathy Doyle Thomas. “We can’t say we’re an environmentally conscious company and not be sure the products are safe.” Half Price removed all book-plus items from the shelves in every store and is warehousing them while it researches how to dispose of them in a safe and environmentally sound way, perhaps at a hazardous waste site. It will not buy book-plus items from the public and won’t sell remainders or overstock novelty books unless it has a CoC from the distributor. “If they can’t provide that, we won’t purchase it,” Thomas says.
As for pre-1986 inventory, Half Price decided that books printed before 1970 would be sold in its collectibles rather than children’s department; the CPSC issued a statement a few weeks ago that the Act did not apply to “collectible” children’s books, although it did not define “collectible.” For books printed from 1970 through 1985, Half Price hired a company to test a representative sample of books from various years, formats and publishers. No paper-based book contained over 10 or 20 ppm of lead, far below the Act’s most stringent standards.
One challenge has been to educate Half Price employees, so they can tell the customers why they can’t buy or sell a particular book. “We don’t want to scare the customer, but we want to be able to explain,” Thomas says. “The employees have to be able to look the customer in the eye and explain it.”
Resellers of used children’s books are not required to test books or provide certification, but at the same time they cannot sell any books for children that are not safe, as defined by the Act. Most used booksellers continue to offer older books, even without proof that they’re safe, believing the risk is minimal and the harm from destroying children’s books outweighs any danger of lead exposure.
Staffers at Jacobsen Books in Clinton, Wis., used crime scene tape to express disapproval with CPSIA guidelines.
“I’m looking at it as a free speech issue,” says Valerie Jacobsen, owner of Jacobsen Books in Clinton, Wis., which sells 7,000 to 8,000 children’s books in its shop and online. She estimates 65% of her inventory for kids 8—12 and 35% for kids 3—8 was printed before 1986. “I just know that, from a moral position, I want to continue to sell them,” she says. “But it also makes me uncomfortable that someone could decide to make me a test case.”
Jacobsen surveyed used booksellers about their response to the CPSIA on her Yahoo Groups page. Of 79 who responded, 61% said they would continue to sell children’s books as they always have, 31% hadn’t decided what to do, 2% had removed all pre-1986 books from their shelves, and 3% said they removed some that seemed like they might be risky. None had tested any books.
Most members of the Independent Online Booksellers Association are positioning their children’s books as collectibles, according to Chris Volk, v-p of OBIA and owner of Bookfever.com. “If I’m selling a children’s book for $100, I can be sure it’s not being given to a child to chew on,” she says. Volk and other members say they will not purchase book-plus or novelty books any more, while a couple of members are including a message on their Web sites or online listings explicitly stating their children’s books are intended as collectibles for adults. “If there was actually lead in books, our members would not sell them to children,” Volk stresses, adding that, while protecting children from lead and phthalates is important, the law overreaches. “It’s like they took a blunderbuss to shoot a gnat.”
Susan Benne, executive director of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, says that ABAA members primarily sell rare and collectible books that are not intended for use by children. “Many of these books sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars,” she points out.
Still, there are a lot of gray areas when it comes to the collectibility exclusion. “Neither price nor year of printing can be used to define what is collectible,” says Brian Elliott, president and CEO of Alibris, who believes the Association of American Publishers and other groups have amply demonstrated that books are safe. “Most of our sellers have said this is a tempest in a teapot,” he continues. “A few have removed children’s book listings, but the vast majority continue to sell books that are pre-1985.”
There are a few instances where significant lead content in older books has been discovered, however. An independent environmental consultant, Jennifer Taggart of TheSmartMama.com, has tested a number of older children’s books with an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) gun—one of the methods available to test for lead content—and has not found much to be concerned about. But one 1942 printing of a Mother Goose book contained 2,800 ppm of lead, Taggart found, which is much higher than the CPSIA allows.
Libraries Wait and See
Libraries also have been dealing with the ramifications of the Act, especially with regard to pre-1986 books, as well as novelty titles. The CPSC has offered conflicting advice for libraries in interviews with the press, and there were reports in January of libraries briefly cordoning off or putting tarps over their children’s sections and returning summer reading incentives.
But most now seem to be following the American Library Association’s advice and taking no action until further guidance arrives from the CPSC or Congress. “If we become aware of any unsafe items that would pose a danger, we would tell our membership and the public,” says Emily Sheketoff, executive director of ALA’s Washington office. “We don’t want children to be harmed by lead. But eliminating tens of millions of books that aren’t dangerous will also damage children.”
One common observation among retailers is that their customers seem to be unaware of the Act and, even if they know about it, are unconcerned. “Not a single customer has mentioned it,” Volk says.
In other CPSIA news, a growing number of Congress members, mostly Republicans, have called for hearings to address some of the controversial aspects of the Act. They were joined recently by Democrat John Dingell, who sent a letter to the CPSC on March 4 outlining his concerns and mentioning children’s books at length. Meanwhile, several industry trade groups have organized an April 1 rally on Capitol Hill; speakers are expected to include Congress people as well as representatives of publishing and library groups. A Web site with more information is expected to be up and running in a few days.
The publishing industry is still awaiting clarification on CPSIA testing protocols and labeling requirements, in addition to continuing to seek an exemption for ink-on-paper books. (Watch PW for a future article on how publishers are dealing with testing, labeling and certification issues under the CPSIA.)