Friday, January 30, 2009

Sanity Prevails: Common Sense Carries the Vote at CPSC

Today, the CPSC voted unanimously to to issue a one year stay of enforcement for certain testing and certification requirements for manufacturers and importers of regulated products, including products intended for children 12 years old and younger. This does not mean that they have relaxed the lead standards or repealed the law. If a product is found to contain lead in excess of the standards set by the Act, the CPSC will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. But for artisans, manufacturers, authors, small businesses, and libraries who already know that their children's products are safe, it's a welcome reprieve. Provided there's no lead or phthalates in excess of the limits set by the CPSIA, failure to obtain the prescribed third-party testing and certification will not be punished.

In CPSC Acting Chairman Nancy Nord's statement regarding the vote, she writes,

The stay of enforcement of the testing and certification provisions will give some temporary and limited relief to small manufacturers, home-based businesses and crafters who cannot comply with the law without incurring substantial testing costs. However, the stay does not relieve them of complying with the underlying requirements enacted by Congress and which go into effect on February 10, 2009, dealing with lead, phthalates and a number of other toy standards. Any changes to these requirements will need to be addressed by Congress.

The stay of enforcement does not provide relief for the charities, thrift shops, resellers and small retailers who are impacted especially hard by the retroactive effect of the lead ban to existing inventory. While these groups do not have a legal requirement to test their inventory, they must meet all standards enacted by Congress. Thrift shops, charities and other sellers will have to decide whether they will continue to sell children’s clothing and other products that have not been tested, even though no one has suggested that they are unsafe. The retroactive nature of the lead ban has caused much of the concern that has been voiced over this law but Congress will need to address that issue; the CPSC cannot.

It is important to note that the stay of enforcement does not apply to the following:

  • Four requirements for third-party testing and certification of certain children's products subject to:
  • Certification requirements applicable to ATV�s manufactured after April 13, 2009.
  • Pre-CPSIA testing and certification requirements, including for: automatic residential garage door openers, bike helmets, candles with metal core wicks, lawnmowers, lighters, mattresses, and swimming pool slides; and
  • Pool drain cover requirements of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act.

Are books included in the products receiving a stay of enforcement? Yes. Cheryl Falvey's December 23rd response to Allan Adler states:

...with regard to those books that are intended or designed primarily for children 12 years of age or younger, ordinary books are not subject to the ban on lead-in-paint. As has always been the case, printing ink is not considered a surface coating under the lead-in-paint ban (16 C.F.R. Part 1303) because ink by its nature soaks into paper or cardboard and becomes part of the substrate. However, a book intended or designed primarily for children would need to meet the new lead content limit of 600 ppm and subsequently 300 ppm established by the CPSIA. 

Thus, ordinary books and most other products for children aged 12 and under do not fall under any of the categories that are specifically excluded from the stay of enforcement - meaning that they are included in it.

For handcrafters and clothiers, it's important to know the lead content of the zippers, buttons, and other components of the items they make or sell. Now is the time to demand the use of safe materials from suppliers.

Commissioner Thomas H. Moore wrote:

From the outpouring of letters, emails and phone calls to the agency, it is clear that many smaller manufacturers did not know that there were any federal standards that applied to their products, had no idea how to have their products tested and may never have heard of the CPSC, or if they had, did not think this agency had any relevance to their business. Their reaction made a number of things clear:

  • That the new electronic media channels, particularly the blogs, are tremendously useful tools for disseminating important information to small businesses, but that they can also be a channel for spreading confusing misinformation,
  • That the Commission has not done enough to make the home crafters and other smaller businesses aware of their pre-existing obligations under the law,
  • That the new law (CPSIA) has done what the Commission had not been able to do, get the attention of many, many of these smaller manufacturers with respect to their responsibility to assure the safety of their products, and
  • That the vast majority of these smaller businesses, while they may not know the specific rules that apply to their products, are likely making safe products, or they would have come to our attention.

First, let me just say thank you to Nancy Nord and Thomas H. Moore. Well done.

Second, if "the new electronic media channels, particularly the blogs" are "a channel for spreading confusing misinformation," then part of the blame rests with poor communication from Congress and the CPSC over a year ago, and with the ambiguous "clarifications" posted by the CPSC in response to early expressions of concern. Had they been as clear as today's statements by Chairman Nancy Nord and Commissioner Thomas H. Moore, it is possible that there would have been less fear and speculation among the general public, most of whom do not hold degrees in law but found themselves caught directly in the path of a law that was swiftly bearing down on them with the threat of bankrupting their businesses within weeks.

Third, home crafters and other smaller businesses were prepared to err on the side of caution; despite the utter lack of common sense apparent in the CPSIA, they were prepared to stop manufacturing and selling - libraries were preparing to remove books from their shelves or shut their doors to children under 12! - in their shocked and horrified willingness to be law-abiding citizens even at the cost of their livelihoods during some of the toughest economic times we've faced since the early 1980s. Let's not be too eager to push through new laws in the name of "children's safety" before considering all of the ramifications of those laws, including their negative impact on the very children they purport to protect.

Fourth, Mr. Moore, don't break your arm patting yourselves on the back - smaller manufacturers should never have learned about the CPSIA so late in the game. Many of them didn't hear about it or have an opportunity to comment prior to its passage into law. That is largely the fault of Congress and the CPSC. But now that you know what an effective method of communication "the new electronic media channels, particularly the blogs" can be, we expect to hear more from you - and to be more involved in the legislative process.

Finally, you're correct in stating that "the vast majority of these smaller businesses, while they may not know the specific rules that apply to their products, are likely making safe products, or they would have come to our attention." So many of these "smaller businesses" began in response to the spate of unsafe toys and recalls issued by the CPSC. Their goal was to design, produce, and sell safer products for children. So to expect them to bear the brunt of consequences that are largely the result of large companies' greed or negligence is unjust. Today's stay of enforcement is an important step towards restoring our faith and trust in the process, but I suspect many of us will be keeping a closer eye on what government is doing to us in our names.

Book Review: Bubba & Giganto: Odds Against Us

bully (n.)
1538, originally "sweetheart," applied to either sex, from Du. boel "lover, brother," probably dim. of M.H.G. buole "brother," of uncertain origin (cf. Ger. buhle "lover"). Meaning deteriorated 17c. through "fine fellow," "blusterer," to "harasser of the weak" (1653). Perhaps this was by infl. of bull, but a connecting sense between "lover" and "ruffian" may be in "protector of a prostitute," which was one sense of bully (though not specifically attested until 1706). The verb is first attested 1710. The expression meaning "worthy, jolly, admirable" (esp. in 1864 U.S. slang bully for you!) is first attested 1681, and preserves an earlier, positive sense of the word.
(from The Online Etymology Dictionary at http://www.etymonline.com )

Who would have imagined that the word "bully" as we know it, today, stems from a word that originally meant "sweetheart," "lover," or "brother"?

In her book Bubba & Giganto: Odds Against Us, author Lea Schizas explores the growing pains of adolescence. The mother of five, Ms. Schizas has created believable, three-dimensional characters that illustrate the harmful, dangerous consequences of bullying at school, without demonizing the bully, himself.

First, there's Bubba. "Bubba" dates back as far as 1839, a variation, perhaps, of the American English colloquial term "bud," used to refer to "a little boy," or maybe from the German, "bube," meaning "boy," or from the English word, "brother." Common slang in the southern U.S., the nickname "Bubba" can have connotations ranging from "good ol' boy" to "uneducated simpleton." The foundations for bullying have been laid on far less solid ground than that; one wonders what possessed this kid's parents. We agonized over names for our children even before they were born, testing each for it's potential corruptions and nasty connotations.  There isn't much you can do to "Katherine" or "William." Ironically, my son's first "words" were "buh buh buh buh buh buh buh..." and, without thinking, I started calling him Bubba. Some parents go out of their way to give their kids bully-fodder names. A recent court case in New Zealand involved a girl whose parents named her "Talulah Does the Hula from Hawaii."  

The judge criticised parents who give their offspring bizarre names, saying it exposed children to ridicule among their peers.

"The court is profoundly concerned about the very poor judgment that this child's parents have shown in choosing this name. It makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability and handicap, unnecessarily," he said.

...he said names such as Stallion, Yeah Detroit, Fish and Chips, Twisty Poi, Keenan Got Lucy and Sex Fruit were prohibited by registration officials. Others that were permitted included twins called Benson and Hedges, other children called Midnight Chardonnay, Number 16 Bus Shelter and, the judge added, "tragically, Violence". Another mother tried to use text language for her child's name, he said.

(from http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/jul/24/familyandrelationships.newzealand )

Then, there's Giganto, whose real name is David. An innocuous "giant" of a kid, David is gentle and good-natured. Most of the kids at Pierson High think David's a good guy, but none are willing to stand up to Jason, Patrick, or Don - three soccer players who delight in tormenting the boy. As Bubba and David form a friendship, Bubba, too, becomes a target for their taunting.

There are, I think, two main kinds of bullying: that which stems from a "herd mentality," and that which stems from a "misery loves miserable company" mentality. To be ostracized by the herd is to be cut off from its protection, and the herd naturally ostracizes those who are "different" or perceived as "weak" or "troublesome": the boy with the funny name, the girl with a limp, the quiet, overweight "Giganto" who works up the nerve to try out for the soccer team. The rest of the herd will go along with the leaders' actions, either because they agree or because they fear being ostracized, themselves. Among humans, there is an added component - a need, sometimes, to lash out and make others suffer when we're in pain. Sometimes, when the victims have had enough, they become the bullies, themselves - as Bubba's first meeting with David shows.

Bubba's and David's reactions to being bullied are very different: David is non-confrontational, while Bubba is eager to put the bullies in their place. Both approaches have their flaws - because despite his peaceful nature, David stands up to the bullies' challenge with Bubba - all the while, hiding a secret that could spell tragedy.

Bullies have their secrets, too; ferreting them out may be the key to solving the problem of bullying. Written primarily for kids in grades 4-6, the tale of Bubba & Giganto demonstrates the power of understanding and an opportunity for redemption.

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Lea Schizas is the founder of The MuseItUp Club, an online critique community, the Muse Online Writers Conference, and co-founder of Apollo’s Lyre. Each of these venues has consistently been in Writer’s Digest 100 Top Writing Sites since 2005.

For more information on her blogs, upcoming books, zines/newsletters, go here: http://www.leaschizas.com

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mercury Found in Foods Kids Love to Eat: Another Reason to Avoid HFCS

I'll admit, I didn't jump on the "high-fructose corn syrup is bad for you" bandwagon. I didn't start calling it "HFCS" to make it sound more like some exotic, toxic chemical than a foodstuff. Fructose is, after all, the same kind of sugar found in fruit and honey. Corn is a vegetable. I just didn't pay attention to how corn was turned into "high-fructose corn syrup," or HFCS.

 

In making HFCS, caustic soda is used, among other things, to separate corn starch from the corn kernel. For decades, HFCS has been made using mercury-grade caustic soda produced in industrial chlorine (chlor-alkali) plants.  The use of mercury cells to produce caustic soda can contaminate caustic soda, and ultimately HFCS, with mercury.

I don't know about you, but the words "caustic soda," "chlorine," and "mercury" are just not words I want to hear mentioned in conjunction with stuff I'm going to put into my mouth. But I don't know much about food processing, and I'm assuming there are inspectors and regulators whose job it is to ensure that our food supply is safe. Maybe not actually good for us, but mostly it's not going to kill us, right?

I have always thought we overreacted, somewhat, to the dangers of mercury. I miss chasing little beads of it around a plate with my finger, whenever a glass thermometer broke. It's almost impossible to buy one of those things, today. There was a big hue and cry over mercury in amalgam dental fillings, years ago, but most of the folks who switched all their fillings out for newer materials were largely dismissed as nut jobs. It was acknowledged that maybe dental technicians would come into contact with unacceptable levels of mercury, but since most of us aren't dental technicians, it's just not high on our list of things to worry about. And then there were a few bizarre news stories where guys in HAZMAT suits kicked people out of schools and homes and "decontaminated buildings," but most of us have never seen a whole jar of metallic mercury in one place at one time, so that, too, seemed remote and mostly irrelevant.

But nobody in their right mind eats the stuff. I don't know why, mind you - but I "get" that it would be an unhealthy thing to do. And it has never occurred to me that I might be ingesting mercury daily.

EPA and FDA have set a limit of 2 parts inorganic mercury per billion (ppb) parts of water in drinking water. EPA is in the process of revising the Water Quality Criteria for mercury. EPA currently recommends that the level of inorganic mercury in rivers, lakes, and streams be no more than 144 parts mercury per trillion (ppt) parts of water to protect human health (1 ppt is a thousand times less than 1 part per billion, or ppb). EPA has determined that a daily exposure (for an adult of average weight) to inorganic mercury in drinking water at a level up to 2 ppb is not likely to cause any significant adverse health effects. FDA has set a maximum permissible level of 1 part of methylmercury in a million parts (ppm) of seafood products sold through interstate commerce (1 ppm is a thousand times more than 1 ppb). FDA may seize shipments of fish and shellfish containing more than 1 ppm of methylmercury, and may seize treated seed grain containing more than 1 ppm of mercury.

Okay. Up to 2ppb is "safe." That would be 2000ppt. A report released by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) this week indicates that about half of the food samples tested were found to contain mercury. Curious as to which ones contained mercury, and how much? Click here. And you thought grabbing that oatmeal on the run was better than skipping breakfast... Now, nothing on the list contained 2000ppt mercury. But mercury is one of those things that hangs around in your body for a while - months - while you continue to add to it. It accumulates.

HFCS is found in sweetened beverages, breads, cereals, breakfast bars, lunch meats, yogurts, soups and condiments. On average, Americans consume about 12 teaspoons per day of HFCS. Consumption by teenagers and other high consumers can be up to 80 percent above average levels.

Surely, there's no mercury in our high-fructose corn syrup - I mean, the FDA regulates this stuff, right? Isn't it their job to keep us safe?

While the FDA had evidence that commercial HFCS was contaminated with mercury four years ago, the agency did not inform consumers, help change industry practice or conduct additional testing.

But even if there is mercury in my food, how bad could that be? According to the CDC:

Children exposed to metallic mercury for long periods may have trouble learning in school. When mercury levels in the body are extremely high, "chelation" therapy is necessary. Chelation therapy involves putting a chemical into the bloodstream; the chemical combines with the mercury to aid in its removal from the body.

Okay, so maybe that explains why learning disabilities are on the rise, along with obesity. But really, is mercury all that dangerous? See the CDC's Public Health Statement on Mercury. And note that mercury is listed right below arsenic and lead on the 2005 CERCLA Priority List of Hazardous Substances (phthalates, by the way - banned by the CPSIA in children's toys - don't feature in the top 50 - they begin at 52).

Why is there no immediate recall of products containing high-fructose corn syrup?

“Mercury is toxic in all its forms,” said IATP’s David Wallinga, M.D., and a co-author in both studies. “Given how much high fructose corn syrup is consumed by children, it could be a significant additional source of mercury never before considered. We are calling for immediate changes by industry and the FDA to help stop this avoidable mercury contamination of the food supply.”

Well, what can we do about it? The IATP has a few action items for us:

HFCS as a mercury source is a completely avoidable problem. HFCS manufacturers don’t need to buy mercury-grade caustic soda. And the chlorine industry doesn’t need to use mercury cell technology.

In fact, most chlorine plants in the U.S. don’t use it anymore, as it is antiquated and inefficient. While we wait for the FDA to do its job and eliminate this unnecessary and completely preventable mercury contamination, we have a few suggestions for what you as consumers and voters can do.

Currently, food manufacturers don’t list on their products the source of HFCS and whether or not it is made from mercury-grade caustic soda. So call them. Make use of the toll-free numbers or Web sites on many packages, and let companies know you’re not comfortable eating their product until you know exactly what is in it.

As voters, call your elected officials and ask them for hearings to find out why the FDA is not protecting us from mercury in HFCS. Also, ask these officials to reintroduce legislation originally proposed by then-Senator Barack Obama a few years ago that will force the remaining chlorine plants to transition to cleaner technologies. Because even if they stop providing the caustic soda used for HFCS, their mercury pollution is still contaminating our food system as it falls on farm fields and waterways.

 

Sources:

"Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup," by David Wallinga, M.D., Janelle Sorensen, Pooja Mottl, Brian Yablon, M.D. (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Minneapolis, Minnesota; January 2009) at http://www.healthobservatory.org/library.cfm?refid=105026

Table A: Total mercury detected in 55 brand name foods and beverages high in HFCS

"Much High Fructose Corn Syrup Contaminated With Mercury, New Study Finds Brand-Name Food Products Also Discovered to Contain Mercury" (IATP Press Release)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Action Alert: Tomorrow is CPSIA Blog-In Day

Click here to download full sized image. Open-source artwork from Connie Kaiser.

In order to educate consumers as well as designers, artisans, authors, manufacturers, retailers, publishers, and resellers about the effects of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, tomorrow is "CPSIA Blog-In Day." You are invited to blog about the CPSIA and the effect it will have on you and your family. Proponents of this law argue that you can't put a price on kids' safety - and they're right. The problem is, they haven't read the law.

No one is objecting to tougher lead standards in children's products, or to limiting kids' exposure to phthalates. Unfortunately, the CPSIA imposes new testing and certification requirements that many individuals and small businesses devoted to making handcrafted toys, clothes, accessories, and books for children cannot afford to comply with - meaning that on February 10, 2009, they face a choice: Defy the law or go out of business. Those that can survive still face tough decisions. Already, many of them have had to lay off employees - in a tough economy where jobs are scarce. Many of them will simply have to destroy their inventory of children's products and stop selling them in the future. Public libraries are contemplating whether to remove books from their shelves - or ban kids twelve and under from the library. Schools and school libraries are also affected. Imagine that on February 10, your child's textbooks must be taken away - destroyed or locked in a storeroom, because they are deemed "hazardous substances." I invited readers of my blog to fill out a survey on the CPSIA and its effect on their businesses.

"Safety laws are important," says bookseller Zach Smith, "but they need to target specific things that pose a problem - they should not indiscriminately blanket the entire market."

Connie Hughes writes, "I think it is ridiculous to make such a sweeping law to protect children from products that have no chance of containing lead.  The hand smocked baby bonnets I make and sell in no way use any product that contains lead or is exposed to lead, yet I will be penalized by this law." More affordable tests have been deemed acceptable as initial screening mechanisms, but insufficient to comply with the requirements of the CPSIA. They might serve to give resellers and thrift shop owners that "level of confidence" that the goods they sell won't get them thrown in jail. After all, they're exempt from the testing and certification requirements, but they will still be held liable if they sell any product containing lead. How the CPSC plans to prove that second-hand goods came from one thrift store or another is beyond me.

Another survey respondent who signed only as "C." adds, "This is going to have such a huge impact on the nation as a whole!  Especially with the economy in the state it's in, people are relying on small business, and second hand items to get them through!"

One argument I hear, occasionally, goes like this: "If you can't afford to properly test your products for safety, you shouldn't be in business selling products to children." While that seems a fair point, consider this: Many of the businesses hit hardest by the CPSIA were started by parents and grandparents and people who cared about kids in response to all the recalls of lead-tainted children's goods imported from China by mass-market toy companies. They wanted to create safer, healthier, more environmentally friendly toys, clothes, and accessories. And they're being punished for it. Those who have already broken the law, exposed our kids to harm, and put their lead-laden products on the market are going to survive this!

Children's clothes typically don't contain lead. In fact, of all the kids' clothes recalled over the last two years, I found lots of choking and strangulation hazards, but no lead or phthalates. But where is the cry to ban drawstrings and buttons? The CPSIA only calls for warnings. Glancing through the lead-related recalls of the past two years, it looks to me like most of the problem goods were, basically, cheap crap. Not quality handmade items. Not books.

That's right - books aren't exempt from the CPSIA! I found two instances of lead involving books - both of which were attributed to painted wire bindings. The only books that might contain lead or phthalates in any significant amount have painted metal trim or flexible plastic bits or toys packaged with them. Ordinary books made of paper, cardboard, glue, and ink simply don't have lead in any quantity of toxic materials that would pose a danger to a child's health - even if he ate the entire book. As a mother, a writer, and a citizen who places high importance on the value of a good education, I am - by God - willing to take that chance with my kids' health.

To think that "rulemaking" and a series of minor, specific exemptions is sufficient to save small businesses in America is to open the door to costly, time-wasting litigation. It even wastes the time and resources of the CPSC, meaning they're LESS likely to have the resources to stop the really unsafe products that make it to the U.S. market. Meanwhile, families are hurting already from the downturn in our global economy; this will sound the death knell for countless small businesses as February 10 - National Bankruptcy Day - approaches. It is time to REPEAL THE CPSIA.

If you don't already have a blog, now would be a good time to start one. This affects everyone. Please don't sit back and think "somebody else" will take care of it. They're trying, but they need your help, your voices, your opinions.

 

Related Posts on This Blog

Save the Children's Books! CPSIA is a Road to Hell, Paved with Good Intentions

Thanks for the Form Letter, Senator
Good News for Thrift Stores & Consignment Stores
Open Letter to Artisans and Authors Regarding CPSIA

New Hope?

CPSIA: More Weasel Words Render "Clarification" Murky

Dangerous Books!!! Killer Kids' Clothes!!!

ALA, Books, and the CPSIA