The impact of the CPSIA on the educational market is getting more and more worrisome. Two recent events shocked me for their implications. First, Michael Warring of American Educational Products reports that a school opted to stop using AmEP's rocks to teach Earth Science and will instead rely on a POSTER. Not quite the same educational experience . . . . Yes, the school has become convinced that rocks are too dangerous for kids to touch. Before you laugh too hard, just remember it might be your school district that made this choice. In a "fear of everything" world, this kind of ridiculous decision-making will be more and more common. The continued ragging of consumer groups about "toxic toys" sullies the reputation of all good companies and their good products. In this case, rocks take on the "toxic" tag because they contain uncontrollable amounts of base elements found in nature. If only we could create laws to restrain Mother Nature!
I wish teaching Earth Science by way of a poster was my biggest concern. I have been on record for a long time worrying about how Science would be treated under this terrible law. For many reasons, science items are particularly exposed. That does not mean they are dangerous - their record for safe use is sterling - but under the rigid and unthinking arbitrary standards of the CPSIA, they are verboten, whether it makes sense or not. Up to now, perhaps you thought this issue was simply a product of my feverish imagination. Then comes along the Potato Clock. This clever product can be purchased from more than one source, and is also a DIY home science project, perfect for Science Fairs. Please note that the homemade Potato Clock utilizes "dangerous" items like nails, clips, wire, batteries, etc. Welcome to science education . . . .
Anyhow, recently a manufacturer of the Potato Clock decided to test its version for compliance with the newfangled CPSIA. In their eager beaver-ness, they shot themselves in the foot, discovering (horrors) that the insulation on the product's potato wires contain trace amounts of lead over the arbitrary limits of CPSIA. Not that anyone has ever been hurt from wire insulation (at least not from nibbling on it). Unfortunately, safety is the least of anyone's concerns under the CPSIA.
The actual knowledge of the product's testing failure precipitated the kind of CPSIA horror story that has been interfering with my sleep for months. First, the company decided that since it now knew of the test failure, it had an immediate reporting obligation under CPSIA Section 15(b). In addition, they concluded they had an obligation to immediately stop sale, since continuing to sell would be another "knowing" violation - yes, kids, that's a felony with possible penalties of jail time and asset forfeiture (goodbye house and car!).
Presumably, the executives at this company could not imagine going to jail for selling Potato Clocks as they had for years, but heck, Congress writes the rules. The CPSC, apparently, upon receiving this (unwanted) 15(b) report concurred - yep, the wire insulation exceeds the standard, and yep, you have to stop sale. No recall was required by the CPSC BUT the company appears to have decided almost immediately that an informal recall was mandated. Why might they have decided such a thing? Well, perhaps they had a generalized fear of liability from dealers who might be sued for selling this "dangerous" device if it ever came to light that the product had impermissible lead in the wire insulation. That seemingly uncontrollable situation forced the company's hand and despite the fact that the CPSC had no interest in a recall, the company sent out letters demanding that dealers immediately stop sale and return the devices to the company.
Okay, what's the problem? Aren't we all "safer" now that this "scourge" has been removed from store shelves? Well, hold on a moment. First of all, the product is not even theoretically considered "dangerous". This is a classic example of a hyper-technical violation of the CPSIA that entraps innocent and useful products. It's not a question of safety for anyone, including the CPSC, the company - and you. Stopping sale of this item made NO ONE SAFER - it only made the company poorer and left schools with less equipment to teach science.
There are some huge problems here. First, please note that this series of unfortunate events was driven by a well-intentioned company trying to comply with the law. Their reward - losses in the tens of thousands of dollars. Second, after learning that no good deed goes unpunished, the company began to think in terms of possible liabilities. With "actual knowledge" being irrefutable, the liability exposure under the law by acting sensibly skyrocketed, compelling the company to act self-destructively. Thus, the company imposed a recall on itself for a product everyone acknowledges is safe, removing it from schools and homes. Third, the company went further than the regulators demanded, all to minimize its exposure to lawsuits and possible criminal charges - for selling a Potato Clock. There is no way to stop this chain of events under this draconian law - ask yourself what you would have done. This story is going to be EVERYONE'S story soon. Get used to the idea.
But the WORST part of this story, the most chilling, is the part about the wire insulation. The Potato Clock was recalled for having too much lead in the wire insulation. Why did it have lead in it at all? Wire insulation contains lead because it is recycled vinyl, probably recovered principally from scrap of other wire. Remember, recycling is good for our planet, and responsible companies try to use recycled materials whenever possible. Only virgin vinyl can be certified lead-free. A switchover to virgin vinyl insulation would be very costly and would means that the old vinyl wouldn't be recycled anymore. That won't happen.
The real problem comes from the fact that the Potato Clock utilizes "ordinary" wire. Everyone and everything utilizes "ordinary" wire. No specially-coated wire is used in children's products and even if it were available, it would be too expensive for this kind of application. Potato Clocks should use "ordinary" wire. If ordinary wire will always fail the CPSIA standards because of its insulation, then everything using wire in schools can't be sold for use by children under 13 years of age. This means, among other things, no electricity education before the 7th grade in this country (and only for the 13 year olds in the room - the 12 year olds will have to leave the room until their birthday). Call me crazy, but I think that's bad public policy. I am not aware that teaching basic science is illegal in China, India, Germany, Australia, Canada, etc. Only in the land of idiots is a rule like this possible.
This will not be the end of the devastation of science education in this country. I have previously noted that microscope light bulbs have a little dot of solder on their base that will fail the lead tests. That means no more light for our school microscopes. Oh well. Other items commonly used for science education include fasteners (nails, screws and bobby pins), wire, magnets, rocks, glass and crystals, metal cups, aluminum foil, steel wool, switches, solar panels, lab equipment like thermometers, scales and ceramic ware, motors, aquariums - the list goes on and on. These items won't make it under the CPSIA for many reasons, some economic and some physical. NONE of them will fail because they are unsafe or because they have poisoned children in schools. Still, American elementary science education will be severely damaged thanks to your friends in Congress.
Given the light and uneven resistance to this law by the general public, I wonder at what point people will start to doubt the "wisdom" of their Congressional leaders on their fancy new safety scheme. I have spoken to members of the press who became interested in the CPSIA issue when their school book fair outlawed the sale of used books (no doubt in homage to Thomas Moore's advice to sequester old books until they are proven "safe"). What about everyone else? Perhaps when people realize their kids are learning about rocks from pictures (to keep them safe!) and are not allowed to have direct, hands-on science experiences until Congress deems it safe (in the 7th or 8th grade, depending on the date of your child's birth), they might start asking a few probing questions. It's about time.
There's no excuse for this. Rise up, America, before Congress allows this law to rot out your educational system!