Remember the headlines from a few years ago about tainted pet food and the recall of toys from China? They were among a slew of stories that stirred up internet comment, spawned a few opinion pieces, and fed the nightly news cycle. Then it was over, except for raising "concern" in Washington. The toes of the great stone giant had been tickled; the nerve endings relayed this and more-or-less similar concerns up the legs and trunk; finally the massive, craggy head turned its attention to the issue of problematic products from China. The result was the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), which was passed by both houses of Congress and signed by genial, conciliatory, never-saw-a-bill-he-couldn't-sign George W. Bush in August 2008.
The CPSIA ignored one of its original stimuli, the tainted pet food, to focus on products for children: motorized recreational vehicles, apparel, novelties, toys, and, oddly, books. Books were included because inks and dyes sometimes used in color printing around the turn of the century did contain lead, even though no cases of lead poisoning have ever been traced to books. No matter: The bill required all children's books published before 1985 to be tested for lead content, and those published after 2008 to bear a tracking code indicating the origin of all its parts. This went into effect on February 10, 2009, a mere six months after signing, creating consternation and confusion in every industry that it touched. Some smaller businesses, such as makers of children's apparel and toys, sank within months under the weight of regulations. Some used-book sellers burned copies of Charlotte's Web and The Outsiders behind the store or sent them to the landfill, not knowing what else to do with them.
It would be nice to say that wiser heads prevailed then, but . . . it's complicated. The children's book business was influential enough to get a one-year stay of enforcement in order to determine exactly what the testing requirements were and how to comply-something the bill doesn't spell out. Two years later, it still isn't spelled out. Earlier this month a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce committee (I'd name the subcommittee but we're drowning in alphabet soup already) met to try and untangle the mess, and made some strides in drafting an Enhancing CPSC Authority and Discretion Act (ECADA) of 2011. The act, if passed, would let previously published books off the hook by removing the lead-testing requirement, thus solving a problem that was never a problem. Good news for libraries and used-book sellers, not so good for publishers and retailers because they still don't know what kind of certification will bring them in compliance with the law.
The CPSIA, ECADA, and whatever else comes of it are not news, nor even especially noteworthy in the current loopy morass of federal activism. Rather, the saga is all too typical. At one end is a problem, small but dramatic enough to attract comment and allow members of Congress to call for an investigation and hearings (hopefully televised). At the other end is a millstone of regulations crafted by bureaucrats justifying their well-paid jobs, ready to heave these regulations into the stream of American commerce and sink a few businesses. The original issue of contaminated dog food could have been solved with public service announcements about certain products; if consumers stop buying, distributors stop buying, and the source either dries up or cleans up. But since laws have been passed, the only remedy to unintended consequences is to pass more laws. The stone giant can't be stopped; as it stands now, the best a private citizen can do it try to keep out of its deadly gaze.