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Whoa! Lock up those kids' books chock full o' lead

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS
  • Star Tribune
  • March 12, 2009 - 8:49 PM

Thursday afternoon I dropped by an antique store, looking for crime. Having watched "60 Minutes" all those years, I knew what to do: Find a business owner, start out nice and friendly, then hold up a damning item and ask, "Why do you sell lead-contaminated items for children?" It didn't work, partly because the staff was enjoying lunch, and had mouthfuls of salad, and partly because they had no idea what I was talking about.

Let's back up. Perhaps you've heard of the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Act, which laid out new standards for lead in products aimed at children. Co-sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the act was a response to the stream of tainted goods pouring out of China's factories last year. Apparently they sprayed everything with lead as it rolled off the line. So a bill was passed, which should have solved everything. Right?

Not yet. A billion dollars worth of inventory has been removed from shelves. And it's not just makers of products like clothing and motorcycles that find the standards confining -- it's the folks who process the detritus of the past and resell it to bargain hunters and collectors.

Take old children's books, for example. Little Golden Books were apparently misnamed; Tiny Poison Volumes would have been more accurate. The Little Engine That Could belched out poisonous ash that came down as acid rain in Busytown. It's the ink -- chock full o' lead. You might think this isn't a problem with educational books; the text raises your IQ by the same amount the lead in the text lowers it.

But it is a problem for those interested in saving the old books. Some thrift stores around the country are tossing out bushels of old children's books, just to be safe. No one wants a ruinous fine because they sold a copy of "Fido Visits the Gas Refinery" printed in 1952.

That's what took me to the antique store. They had no idea. The owner said she might be the wrong person to ask because "I'm not the worry-wart type of person."

"Grandmas buy Little Golden books," said another dealer.

"Kids couldn't care less. I understand banning old lead toys," she added, "but only old men buy those."

Under lock and key

I looked around, found some books that obviously hailed from the Era of Lead -- "Zippy the Chimp" ($14.50), "Woofus the Dog," ($12.00), "Bimzi the Uranium-Pellet Juggling Clown," etc. They were all behind a locked glass case -- because they're collectible. Whew. There's an exemption in the law for collectible children's books -- but, of course, that's a subjective designation; everything's collectible. What if the books show up in a thrift store, where the items of the past don't get such exquisite attention?

They're on the case. Pam Carlson, P.R. director for ARC, said, "We've been trying to keep track of publication dates as best as we can. If it's a really old collector-type book, we might put it in a locked case, sell it as a collectible."

Who makes the call? "There are staff who take it upon themselves to be experts in these things," she said. If it's pre-1985 and uncollectible, it shares the fate of many books they can't unload: recycling. Which means many books will simply be lost.

The law seems to presume that children, having read and enjoyed a beloved story, will eat it. But every boomer read these books, and somehow we survived. Of course, just because you grew up in a house where your parents smoked Chesterfields and slathered white-lead paint on your crib and celebrated special events by dumping a sack of asbestos into a box fan, and heck you turned out all right, doesn't mean we shouldn't keep an eye on the things kids put in their maws. But this is ridiculous.

Chicken Little locked away

So the Little Golden Books -- the first books in the boomer-child's library -- are turned into collectibles, a term we use for things intended for children but now kept from children's hands lest they do something ruinous, like touch it. Don't read that! It could leap into your mouth while you're not looking! If nothing else, it's a sign of how paranoid we become in the name of safety: a humble story of Chicken Little is locked away and perhaps handled only with tongs and gloves, after you've signed a waiver. We could modify this law, but we can't change the law of unintended consequences. Even if we did, people would be surprised if repealing the law brought unintended consequences. Whoa -- didn't mean for that to happen.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 More daily at www.startribune.com/buzz.

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