Old Books - A New Source of Lead Poisoning?

Filed under: In The News, Books for Kids

When you think about dangerous books, what comes to mind? That classic list of banned books, titles like "Of Mice and Men" and "Brave New World?" Or newer controversial books, like the Harry Potter series or "King and King?"

How about that lovely first edition of Beatrix Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" that your grandmother bought for your first born? That's the one you should be worried about, but not because Peter is breaking and entering, or because he gets a spanking. You should worry because that book might very well be poisonous.

I'm not kidding.

Top 10 Baby Books

    Goodnight Moon
    Perhaps the perfect children's bedtime book, Goodnight Moon is a short poem of goodnight wishes from a young rabbit preparing for -- or attempting to postpone -- his own slumber.

    HarperCollins

    Pat the Bunny
    Pat the Bunny is a part of childhood, as soothing as cocoa and animal crackers.

    Golden Books

    The Very Hungry Caterpillar
    "In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf." So begins Eric Carle's modern classic.

    Philomel

    Guess How Much I Love You
    Little Nutbrown Hare wants very much to impress Big Nutbrown Hare with the enormous scale of his devotion in this ever-popular book, but ends up being the one who's impressed.

    Candlewick

    One Fish, Two Fish, Three, Four, Five Fish!
    This bouncy counting book comes with five beads shaped like Seussian fish that toddlers can move across the top of the book as they count along.

    Random House Books for Young Readers

    Love You Forever
    Here, the mother sings to her sleeping baby: "I'll love you forever / I'll love you for always / As long as I'm living / My baby you'll be."

    Firefly Books, Ltd

    Time for Bed
    Filling each spread, Dyer's commanding yet gentle, large-scale watercolors are the key to the appeal of this bedtime lullaby.

    Red Wagon Books

    Where the Wild Things Are
    Where the Wild Things Are is one of those truly rare books that can be enjoyed equally by a child and a grown-up.

    HarperCollins

    Baby Faces
    Full of crisp color photographs, this book captures the expressions and moods of babies throughout their busy days.

    DK Preschool

    Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
    The gentle rhyming and gorgeous, tissue-paper collage illustrations in this classic picture book make it a dog-eared favorite on many children's bookshelves.

    Henry Holt & Co.



Books published prior to 1985 were often printed with lead-based inks and paints. Under the recently passed Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, lead limits in anything intended for kids aged 12 and under is strictly regulated. Lead exposure in children has been linked to lower IQ and criminal behavior.

The U.S. government fears that those old books won't make you smart -- they may cause brain damage!

Don't throw those vintage Little Golden Books out. Incineration may release poisons into the air and landfill, of course, can seep into the groundwater. And whatever you do, don't sell them at your next garage sale. The CPSIA is a fairly Draconian piece of legislation; according to one legal scholar, "Penalties ... can include $100,000 fines and prison time, regardless of whether any child is harmed."

I can't help but roll my eyes at this. I'm all about keeping kids safe, but the CPSIA is just ridiculous. Passed in the wake of last year's revelations that toys made in China contained lead-based paints, its ostensible goal is to keep our kids safe. Instead, as Daniel Kalder of The Guardian notes, "this pencils-up-the-nose, forehead-slapping 'I'm mad, me' stupidity has many negative consequences: traders' livelihoods are threatened; poor people lose access to a source of cheap literature for their kids; libraries may be forced to undertake expensive restocking, while out-of-print books will be lost forever." That's quite a sacrifice to make for what seems like a pretty small risk.

My house is full of books, including quite a few that were published before 1985. Many of my children's favorite books are the ones my parents stored away from my childhood; some of these titles are out of print now, and my copies -- from the 70s and early 80s -- are the only ones available. We also have a nice collection of first-edition Hardy Boys novels that used to belong to my father-in-law. And then there are my husband's rare 18th century rhetoric texts.

old booksApparently my house is a hotbed of potential lead poisoning. Who knew!

I don't mean to make light of the dangers of lead and lead-based products. Children who live in homes that are contaminated with lead paint have been shown to suffer serious health issues. But the CPSIA goes too far in its efforts to protect our children. Under this legislation, resale shops may sell books published before 1985 only if they pay for testing to prove that the books are lead-free. Of course, if you're selling used kids books for a quarter apiece, you probably don't have the money to pay for the testing, so many thrift stores and second-hand shops are just refusing to stock those books.

And then there are the libraries, which are chock-full of old books, thank goodness. I would rather my sons come home with a 1960-something copy of "Harriet the Spy" instead of a brand new copy of "Captain Underpants." Harriet might poison them, but she'll also make them think. The CPSIA has suggested that rather than get rid of all those possibly dangerous books, libraries could "sequester" them -- in other words, keep them, but keep them in a safe place where kids can't read them.

I'm not sure how that's any different from banning them outright, honestly.

The CPSIA does have a loophole for rare books, which may be resold as long as they are for adult use only. I suppose that's fine if you're buying that very old book (you know, from 1983) as a collector's item, but what if you just want your kids to read what you read as a child? What if you want them to love the books you loved? What then?

There are plenty of things to worry about when you're raising kids -- worrying that a book might make them sick is a waste of energy. If you must, tell your child not to put "The Three Little Kittens Who Lost Their Mittens" in her mouth -- or take it away altogether until she's old enough to read it, not eat it. But don't give up on a whole generation of books. That's just silly.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.