By MAREN WRIGHT
WASHINGTON - Libraries may consider banning children instead of books in response to the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act's required lead testing, an option Garrett County librarian Cathy Ashby doesn't want to consider.
"That would be one of the ways to comply with the law, but I have a feeling that there will be a lot of civil disobedience," Ashby said of her concern that the new law may prevent children from accessing educational materials at Ruth Enlow Library in Oakland where she is the director.
The Consumer Product Safety Act was passed by Congress Aug. 14 in reaction to findings that some toys imported from China contained dangerous levels of lead. President Bush signed the legislation, which includes stricter limits on lead levels in children's products.
The American Library Association said it fears the law has unintended consequences, and libraries may face the choice of closing their children's sections, banning children under the age of 12 or completing expensive lead testing for every book.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services lists more than 200 public libraries in Maryland with 14,554,000 books in circulation, one-third of which are children's books. The cost of testing each book could be prohibitive.
"We know that the cost of testing a book will be very expensive, and libraries don't have the means to do that," said American Library Association spokeswoman Jenni Terry.
This unintended consequence of the new law isn't the first to rear its head since Congress passed it. A flurry of complaints from second-hand retailers afraid of being bankrupted by the new requirements prompted the commission to release a clarification on Jan. 8 stating the law doesn't require all children's items to be tested.
However, it does make it illegal to distribute any children's item that exceeds the lead limits, said Consumer Product Safety Commission spokesman Joseph Martyak. Though libraries, schools, and thrift shops aren't required to test books for lead, they could face civil or criminal penalties if a book with an elevated lead level leaves its shelves.
On Jan. 22, publishers and librarians met with the commission, but no ruling was issued. The American Library Association sought exemption specifically for libraries, but Martyak said that isn't an option.
"It is important to note that the exemption provisions don't really allow for the exemption of groups, but only products," Martyak said, calling the provisions of the law "narrowly drawn."
One possible solution is for both commissioners of the Consumer Product Safety Commission to agree to enact regulation to exclude books. So far that exemption has not been issued, as the commission searches for the best way to meet the intended lead safety precautions.
The library association has asked its members to lobby the commission to change the requirements before they take effect on Feb. 10.
"Books are safe, and the government shouldn't be wasting its precious resources scaring parents away from encouraging their children to read," stated Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association's Washington office.
Linda Mielke, chief of collection and technology management for Montgomery County's libraries, said that while everyone is concerned for child safety, the interpretation of the law is an overreaction.
"Let me put it this way," Mielke said. "Our books don't come back with bite marks out of them."
Kate Landro shared similar sentiments as her 20-month-old, Drew, toddled over to hug an oversized stuffed bear at the children's section of Urbana Regional Library in Frederick. Happy amid the scattered books, he is surrounded by literacy.
"Of course you worry, as a parent. But at some point you need to live and take the risks. Coming to the library is a risk I'm willing to take," Landro said.
But unless the commission chooses to rule on an exemption for books, Landro may no longer have that option.
"I think there comes a point where you have to draw the line," said Karen Lembo of Salisbury who works at the Wicomico Public Library where her three children are regular visitors.
Sheketoff said the consequences of inaction could be dire.
"If the commission does not correct their ruling ... communities and schools across the country are going to be shocked and outraged on Feb. 10."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.