Monday, January 12, 2009

On Lead In Toys And CPSIA

We start with three incontrovertible premises.

First, lead is a natural element. It's easy for many people to forget that you can't entirely ban something that occurs on the Periodic Table Of The Elements. So we should start off knowing that we were never going to be able to make anything 100% lead free.

Second, not everything with lead in it results in lead poisoning. People safely drink out of leaded crystal goblets, for which they pay a premium price to get even higher lead content. This is because the lead in the crystal is chemically locked in the crystal and cannot be leached out into the drink. The only liquids you could put in which would cause lead to leach out of the crystal goblet would also cause much nastier effects in your body and you are therefore unlikely to drink them unless you are a character in an action movie. In addition, the lead has to be ingested in order to be poisonous. Lead paint is a danger if people eat it as chips or breathe in the dust. Sitting on a lead painted chair in the same room with a large chunk of lead will not harm you, but swallowing a small lead charm will.

Third, there comes a time in every person's life when he or she stops putting stuff that isn't food in his or her mouth. For most of us this is somewhere around the age of 3. That being said, occasionally people older than 3 will put pins or key rings temporarily in their mouths, chew on jewelry or the ends of pencils, or engage in other thoughtless habits.

With the premises out of the way, we can state that the goal of reducing the amount of available lead in children's products is unqualifiedly a good thing. The harmful effects of lead in children (whom it hits hardest because they are growing) are well documented and occur at blood levels as low as 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in blood. It is a good idea to make sure children who lack the judgment necessary to think about what they are putting in their mouths are not put in a position where they can ingest lead.


Since we cannot eliminate all lead in everything children touch (Premise the First) and we cannot eliminate all errors in judgment even in adults (Premise the Third), we should focus our efforts on those products that contain the most available lead (Premise the Second).

Prior to CPSIA, this effort was focused on lead in paint. In 1978 lead in paint was banned, but leaded paint is still on the walls of many old houses, and it poses a health risk as it peels off, is licked off by kids looking out the window, is worn off by kids rubbing their hands on it and putting their hands in their mouths. This is the major source of lead poisoning in children today. Lead paint is also found in imported toys (domestic manufacturers would have a lot of difficulty getting ahold of lead paint to use on their toys) from countries where lead paint is still legal. These countries are not the EU and Canada. This is why it makes no sense to impose the strictures of the CPSIA on toys from the EU and Canada. The EU in particular has its own recently developed lead standard, RoHS. It is very well crafted and we all really wish Congress had copied the EU's homework instead of guessing at the answers.

The problem that occurred in 2007 was a lack of adequate enforcement. Lead paint was already illegal, but the CPSC did not catch these. I don't know why not-- perhaps they were undermanned and there were too many products on the market to test, perhaps they declined to do the right kind of testing or test random samples. But it certainly wasn't because there was lead in clothing or science kits. Likewise there was a recall because of lead charms that a child swallowed and was poisoned. Lead in jewelry had not previously been regulated, but likely should have been as jewelry is something that even older children put in their mouths.

Another problem with CPSIA is that it switches us over from a system where we committed relatively few Type 1 errors (assuming products were safe when actually they were not) to a system where we commit monstrous numbers of Type 2 errors (assuming products are leaded until proven otherwise). Yes, recalls are a pain in the butt, yes they never manage to get back all the recalled items, and yes the CPSC needed the extra commission members that CPSIA gives them so that they can always have the quorum required to issue recalls. But the perfect is the enemy of the good; the alternative to the pre-CPSIA mess was never to have all children's products made by happy elves in amber-lit workshops with unicorns for supervisors. When we have to choose in real life, we are always choosing the lesser of two evils. You tell me which one you think is the lesser evil in the middle of a recession, the imperfect Type 1 scenario or the disastrous Type 2.

So in summary, the main reasons we are so concerned about the CPSIA are these:
(1) It goes too far in covering items not known to be prone to lead and/or not containing lead in a form that can cause poisoning. An example of the former is clothing; an example of the latter is telescopes. This imposes wasteful additional costs that result in no increase in safety.
(2) Some of the people promoting CPSIA as a good thing do not understand any or all of the above premises and in addition lack knowledge of how goods are produced, deny or downplay their ignorance, and honestly believe that we oppose CPSIA because we want kids to be poisoned so we can make more filthy lucre. (I have a feeling they were absent from school the day their classes took the field trip to the factory and ditched most of their high school chemistry classes as well.)
(3) Hundreds of smarmy Congresspeople evidently voted for this thing without having read it, and some of those were sponsors of the bill and/or gave cloying speeches about "The Children," when the children would have been better served by them spending their speech time on crafting a precision law instead of a blunderbuss.
(4) We really needed a law that would do something such as set a standard for lead in jewelry, give the CPSC extra funding and add commissioners, and institute random testing, but instead we got a law where scofflaw manufacturers can still create "special" samples to send off for testing while slipping lead paint into their regular product, and which puts many legitimate, ethical businesspeople out of business.
(5) It will put people out of business in the middle of a time of economic turmoil-- and not just a few people, half of an extremely large industry. This is approximately the same order of magnitude as the GM problem, except that none of us are asking for a bailout, only to be left alone to do business.