Tuesday, January 26, 2010

CPSIA - In Defense of Lead

Perhaps you have been expecting it. After all the "heat" in this blog over the past year, finally, my defense of lead. Hope you're happy now. . . .

Last Friday, Commissioner Bob Adler posted his long-awaited position paper on lead and related CPSIA issues. Weighing in at 21 pages and 89 footnotes, Mr. Adler's paper includes a thorough recitation of facts as well as his recommendations about the law. Among other things, he recommends making the lead exemption process more flexible and allowing clothing to be sold through charity resale shops. He also left the door open to changes that would ease the economic burden of the CPSIA on small businesses and low-income consumers. I agree with all of these changes - but I also think many other and more extensive changes are needed, too. I do not agree with the basis of Mr. Adler's reasoning, however, and that makes all the difference.

Mr. Adler devotes about half of his statement to a detailed analysis of lead safety, reciting many facts that are not in dispute. Unfortunately, he then leaps to familiar conclusions that we have seen in recent Commission meetings and which are also found in many of his written statements. He does signal some extremely limited flexibility on lead, more or less hewing to the line put forth by Central Casting.

Ironically, Mr. Adler's statement sometimes leaves you wondering where he stands, since he seems so sympathetic to both sides. It is frustrating to not have a clear picture of how he really sees the world. I fail to find persuasive his argument that the lead rules are good for us when they lead to ridiculous results like the banning of brass bushings on toy cars. Mr. Adler himself noted in the Learning Curve hearing that the brass bushings pose NO risk to children at a hypothetical tipping point with blood lead levels (in other words, the toys were incontrovertibly safe) - and then voted to ban them because the law compelled it. This should trigger a sense of outrage in the Commissioner . . . but it doesn't.

To me, as an ex-lawyer, the illogical results documented in the Learning Curve case are intolerable. It is proof of a defective law and a defective system. Banning acknowledged safe products is a SIGN of problems, not something to rejoice in. As you know, it costs money to toss away perfectly good product. It also costs a lot of money to employ CPSC staff and Commissioners to decide silly cases like the brass bushing case. Something's quite wrong if we are celebrating a system so obviously broken.

i believe there are fundamental flaws in Mr. Adler's views on lead which prompt him to make recommendations basically defending a broken, illogical and self-destructive legislative system. Let me start by stating what I considered to be incontrovertible facts:
  • Lead is bad
  • Lead can be dangerous to children
  • Harming children is bad, and unacceptable if reasonably foreseeable.
  • Lead poisoning in children is largely if not entirely the fault of lead house paint and leaded gasoline

Mr. Adler makes the latter point in his footnote 83: "Clothing is not a significant source of lead poisoning. Far and away the greatest source of lead poisoning is lead paint in older housing, lead-saturated soil from gasoline emanated over the years from automobile exhausts, and lead-saturated dust (both from paint and gasoline)." [Other citations omitted] It is important to remember that Mr. Adler KNOWS that blood lead level problems stem from house paint and the long term consequences of years of leaded gasoline use (particularly in the inner city).

Mr. Adler tries to prove that lead is bad - but that fact is beyond dispute. He goes further and builds the case that there is no "safe" level of lead, providing citations. Thus established, he then seems to justify the legislation's strict terms based on the logic that if science hasn't identified a safe level for lead, every instance of lead is therefore dangerous: "We may have currently reached the outer limits of our ability to measure negative effects of exposure to small amounts of lead, but that does not mean that no adverse effects are occurring. It basically means that we do not know." Scary stuff. . . but what does he really think?

It's hard to tell. Notwithstanding his assertion that no level of lead is safe, Adler seems oddly reassured by the permitted levels set by Congress: "[Given] that lead remains ubiquitous and often unavoidable, policymakers who are fully aware of lead's risks, have sought to determine some level of lead that would be acceptable - at least until new information becomes available." And these all-knowing policymakers (Congress) set a retroactive scheme of rapidly declining permitted lead levels. In other words, what was considered "safe" (meaning legal) on February 9, 2009, was "unsafe" on February 10, 2009, and what was considered "safe" on February 10, 2009 became "unsafe" on August 14, 2009, and what was "safe" on August 14, 2009 promises to become "unsafe" on August 14, 2011. Mr. Adler analyzes retroactivity under the CPSIA in his statement and then endorses it. Huh?

I fail to grasp the logic of either Congress or Mr. Adler here. Is lead in substrate dangerous or is it not? Is there a safe level for lead or is there not? Is lead safe on one day, and not safe on the next day? If so, can someone explain the science of that safe/unsafe trigger to me? I believe Mr. Adler's accommodative attitude toward the lead standards and retroactivity is best explained by politics than by any notions of safety or risk.

It is even harder to take Adler's stern tones on lead seriously when you consider the volume of lead elsewhere in a child's life. Will regulation of lead in substrate in children's products have any material impact on blood lead levels? Can anyone prove that it will, or that the cost of getting rid of all the lead is worth the cost? Remember that we could redeploy the same money for more impactful projects, like eliminating high lead levels in drinking water in schools or remediating soil contaminated with lead. We have already covered the fact that Mr. Adler knows that blood lead levels are fundamentally tied to exposure to leaded house paint and contaminated soil. It is also well-known that cars are coated in lead paint, legally under our laws. Lead is also in our food chain, is found in nature - and enters our bodies every day. [For data on this topic, see "Eat My Dust".] By obsessing on children's products in the face of these facts, Congress ensured that its new legislation would fail to deliver measurable results.

In essence, the slogan "no safe level for lead" connotes a risk-free condition. "Risk-free" is an unrealistic standard and FAR too expensive as public policy. Mr. Adler uses this formulation in his lengthy analysis of used clothing sales: "In sum, I cannot state with certainty that a "safety" threshold of, say, 1 µg/dL blood level change would never occur from zipper sucking. . . . The fact that I cannot say there is no risk is why I characterize the choice [between allowing and banning resale of used clothing] as between bad and worse." [Emphasis added] Mr. Adler is not following a legal principle here, he is asserting one. This is the precautionary principle, the famous Nanny State being implemented before your very eyes.

It is difficult to diffuse an argument based on the elimination of all possible risk. If we wish to organize our society around the elimination of risk, rather than the management of risk, we are doomed. All of us, not just the children's product industry. The sad truth is that no one in the Federal government can prove that the policies of the last 35 years on lead caused injury. Mr. Adler implicitly asserts that our inability to prove that it DIDN'T is enough justification to throw the old system out. This is a belief system, not science.

The fear of risk is fanned by the threat of undetectable dangers. Mr. Adler notes: "To say the effects [of lead on healthy children] are not directly observable is not to say that that they are minor." He amplifies this point by implying a link to children's products to lead injuries without any proof of a relationship: "[MRI] technology has permitted us to identify permanent damage in adults stemming from childhood lead exposures." Exposure to what, precisely? ABC blocks or the soil next to an inner-city apartment building in the leaded gasoline era? Mr. Adler's assertion that we just don't know what the harm is dodges the real question - how do you know there is any harm resulting from THESE USES OF LEAD? No answer is supplied because no one can answer that question.

The Adler statement paints a pretty compelling picture and the 89 footnotes were presumably intended to add academic gravitas to his arguments. However, not all academics agree with Adler. Here are videos of the presentations of two Ph.D.s who specialize in risk assessment in children's products and lead issues taking an opposite view: Richard Reiss of Exponent and Barbara Beck of Gradient. They both note that the dose makes the poison and that only through true risk assessment will a sensible safety system be possible.

A couple brief notes:

- Mr. Adler talks a lot about retroactivity in the CPSIA. At the end of the day, he comes down . . . get ready for it . . . in favor of retaining retroactivity, but also for the recommendation of the Commission to make the pending 100 ppm lead standard prospective. I am not commenting on his arguments other than to say that I think relaxation of this provision would bring considerable economic relief without any possibility of physical harm to anyone. That's enough reasoning for me.

- In calling for change to the lead exemption process, Adler is apparently willing to support only "a modest expansion in the amount of discretion granted to the Commission". I find this rather curious and unexplained - he only wants a little discretion. Why? Does he worry that the Commission can't handle the responsibility for full discretion? Again, why? I wonder if greater powers suggested this very limited recommendation out of a lack of "trust", namely trust of future Commissions not hand-picked by this Dem-dominated Congress. No matter the explanation, it is curious indeed to see a Commissioner ask Congress to extend his Commission limited discretion.

- Adler devotes considerable space to sale of children's clothing at resale shops. He ultimately recommends that charity resale shops be allowed to sell children's clothing (possibly subject to posted Proposition 65-like warnings, see footnote 88). Adler's logic in this section is puzzling to me. Is Adler trying to defend children or defend the CPSIA? He concedes that clothing has no history of causing injury from lead but is apparently troubled that it cannot be proven that a child couldn't be harmed by clothing. Incredibly, he resolves the dilemma by distinguishing between resales made by charity shops and by for-profit shops, leaving the latter out of his proposed exemption. So is he approving the sale of unsafe products by charity resale shops to poor people so they can stay warm? Or is he saying that the clothes are probably safe, but can't be sold by for-profit stores for . . . what reason? If the clothing is safe to sell, sell it . . . and if it isn't, don't. WHO sells it shouldn't matter. But apparently it does.

An aside: Mr. Adler uses some strong language to discuss those of us who have pushed back on this law: "As I have waded into the debate, I have encountered many thoughtful, sincere, and anguished concerns about the CPSIA. I have also heard numerous overheated arguments, scanned many bloviating blogs, and read great numbers of error-laden emails (and letters) commenting on the law." For those of you who don't know this SAT word, "bloviating" is defined as "[to] discourse at length in a pompous or boastful manner" on dictionary.com. I wish our government officials would stick to the issues and avoid attacking the exercise of Free Speech by U.S. citizens. This is particularly the case here, since after a long fight, many of those bloviaters have been proven right. I don't expect thanks, but I think this is out of line.

I could go on, but I won't. Mr. Adler's voice in the debate is an important one and I appreciate his efforts to set the record straight. I don't agree with him and appreciate the opportunity to reply.

You be the judge!


Mars Feeney said...

Answering the question of how much lead is too much has become a self sustaining, meaningless frenzy akin to asking “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin”. When you’re talking about immeasurably small effects then there may, in fact, be no effect. But even if there were it would be essentially meaninglessly small.

American children eat way too much fat and exercise far too little. Exercise is essential not just for a healthy body but also a healthy mind. Yet the public elementary school that my daughter goes to has cut physical education. The negative impact of this on children is significant and very measurable.

The negative impacts of the CPSIA are also significant and measurable – businesses are being destroyed, many good and safe educational products are becoming too expensive to manufacture, over a hundred million dollars worth of perfectly safe used items has been destroyed and is no longer available to low income families, part of our cultural heritage, in the form of totally safe pre-1984 books, is threatened, and the list goes on.

And what are our leaders doing? Commissioner Adler spent the effort to write 21 pages reiterating the obvious and talking about lead levels the effects of which are immeasurably small, if they even exist at all. It would have been as useful had he spent those 21 pages answering the dancing Angels question.

Our Democratic leaders in Washington are lost on this issue. Simply and totally lost. The CPSIA is doing significant damage to all of us, our children included. And for the most part, the benefit it returns is immeasurably small.

Anonymous said...

Bloviating blogs? Spoken like a contemptuous commissioner.

Anonymous said...

Oh My! My business that serves so many families in the community has become a choice between "bad and unnecessary" because I intend to actually profit from the hours I put into my work!

Oh, Mr. Alder, it is not just poor people who shop 2nd hand. It just displays more his ignorance about the reality of the life people lead in the real world.


Anonymous said...

I'm struck by Mr. Adlers weighing of the unfairness of repealing the retro-activity of the law because it wouldn't be "fair' to those who already dumped merchandise. I wonder where this thought process comes from. If you believe a law is made in error and you can't fix the past, fix the future.

You don't throw up your hands out some grand notion that we much equally destroy all business.

I suspect, although I have no hard data, that most companies would feel positive if the CPSC were to suggest a repeal of the retro-activity.

We all know this isn't the end of the "toxic" substances in our kids stuff and not the end of lawmaking. We want to see it made right this time so we don't have to go through this again.