Wednesday, July 8, 2009

CPSIA - Do-Gooders Playing a Role in Train Crashes?

Consumer Groups, media and panicky politicians led a feeding frenzy last year over toy recalls that resulted in remarkably broad legislation restricting the presence of lead in children's products, yes our old friend the CPSIA. Of course, the determined "do-gooders" in the consumer group corner have asserted that there is "no safe level" for lead and thus, it makes "sense" to eliminate it totally from children's products (and the world at large, if possible). Remember, you can't be too safe . . . . A leader of this charge was a staff person at the American Academy of Pediatrics who presented unchallenged statistics in September 2007 to a House Subcommittee. With the lilly-white AAP backing of this notion, Congress swung into action and outlawed lead effectively from all children's products. Sounds good, right? Well, as with most manias, the "unintended consequences" have been terrible. This has been well-documented in this space.

Interestingly, I found an article recently that suggested that elimination of lead from circuitry (solder), courtesy of our friends in EU bureaucracy, may have played a role in the recent terrible Washington, D.C. Metro train crash. [Lest we forget, it is worth noting that the motivation behind the EU's elimination of lead from solder was protection of the environment, not a fear over direct human poisoning, the basis of the current U.S. mania.] This article points out something that the amateur scientist fear mongers may not have known, which is that lead plays a useful role in solder, and in its absence . . . more "unintended consequences". In this case, the consequence is something called "tin whiskers", a phenomenon created by "untamed" tin in solder. Tin behaves differently in the absence of lead, and will grow "whiskers" that create electrical shorts. The article suggests that this explains the intermittent electrical failures of the crash detection system on the Washington Metro. Other deadly accidents have been linked to tin whiskers. Precautionary, indeed.

Among the many things that disgust me about the lead mania is the illusion (delusion) that controlling lead-in-substrate in children's products will have any material impact on exposure to lead. In fact, it's just a way to put blinders on. By publicly and notoriously addressing the "lead problem" - problem solved!! This is absurd, of course, but has only encouraged the maniacs. Take, for example, the recent hubbub over the Obama's "lead-contaminated" vegetable garden. Incredibly, the lead levels detected in the White House garden (presumably by people with too much time on their hands) was 93 ppm. Our dear friends at the AAP assert that background lead levels in dirt is 40 ppm. This was the rationale behind the recent Illinois lead labeling legislation profiled in this space. As the Obama article makes clear, the controversy over lead in dirt is just politics, not science, and is WAY out of proportion to both the health threat and the presence of lead all around us. Dr. Kimberly Gray, Director of the Environmental Sciences Program at Northwestern University comments: "It’s inflammatory. 93 ppm is well below background lead for an urban environment. It’s what you’d expect just from atmospheric deposition." The article continues: "Atmospheric deposition is lead particles that fall out of the sky, from things like auto emissions." You mean there's lead in the air, too - oh, no!

The do-gooders have infinite justifications for their bans of lead in children's products, their current obsession, but (other than economic devastation) what has actually been accomplished for the American public by their handiwork? Only the illusion of "better safety". The legislation markets the idea that elimination of insoluble lead from substrate makes a marginal, incremental difference to health, as though it were the only (or principal) source of lead in our bodies. This flawed logic also underlies the dangerous Proposition 65 in California. The labels required by Proposition 65 sounds sensible, intended to advise consumers of the presence of "toxins" in their products (even if legally there) so they can decide whether to expose themselves or their families to the "deadly" substances. Who could object to that? Well . . . the selective presence of these labels gives false comfort to consumers who may believe that the labels highlight the ONLY places where the noted risk occurs. The implicit reasoning goes like this . . . why would the government require lead labels on lip gloss if the government knows that this risk is miniscule compared to MANY other sources of lead in daily life? Aren't they requiring labels on EVERYTHING with lead? And, if so (the government wouldn't let us down!), isn't this buying decision critical, a highlighted choice that might make the difference between good health and some form of miserable, painful, lingering death?! That's the implication, however erroneous.

I do not accept that this is the only way to run a sensible society. Canada has attempted to truncate our fancy new safety system, by tailoring it to a narrow and specific class of products or situations. That seems like a good place to start. It's time for all concerned to acknowledge that the "perfect legislative process" had a faulty outcome. Real leaders are prepared to admit error and to do the right thing for their troops. Congress???

5 comments:

Lucky Pebble said...

Congress????? Hello???

jennifer said...

My fabric is <6ppm, is it safe to say that it is "safer" to eat then breathing the air, riding the metro or eating veggies out of the white house "organic" garden. thanks congress - it is no wonder their approval rating is at 18%.

Anonymous said...

Just in from the lab, my childrens lead tests. They are ages 6 and 7, have lived in a 1916 house that tests positive for high lead in dust. They have rarely if ever had a "new" toy. We live in the city. Both my neighbors (some 5 feet away) sanded and painted their early 1900's homes when they were babies. My 7 year old puts absolutely everything in his mouth and chews... and yet, no discernible lead level in their blood. Hmmm...

Rick Woldenberg, Chairman - Learning Resources Inc. said...

No reason to complain about a good lab test like that. Lead poisoning is real, and you presumably obtained the lead test for the RIGHT reason, which is house paint in an old house and other environmental contaminants. Toys and children's products are NOT the right reason to fear lead. And as an educational toymaker, I think your kids should have lots of new toys!

Anonymous said...

Of course, absolutely, this is why I do get them tested. Simple preventive methods seem to be working however, like hand washing and keeping the house clean and in good repair.

As a child there was a law in my home state of Mass that required people to remove lead from their homes if they tested for lead and had children. Again, like the CPSIA this law did more harm than good, instead of leaving lead where it was and exposed it into the air. It lead to the destruction of perfectly safe homes due to lead fear.

Different issues but significant overreactions in both cases to yes, what is a toxic substance.

btw I believe this law is still on the books but no longer enforced...

Sorry, I mention the used toys since some consumer groups seem to want to paint a broad brush of fear among parents buying used products.

Thanks again for keeping up the fight!