TAMPA — For centuries, books have been swept off the shelves of libraries when the powers-that-be deemed them dangerous for young minds.
Dangerous to read, not to chew.
But now a federal commission is scrutinizing old library books for a different kind of content: Lead, a toxin easily absorbed into the bodies of young children over time, with serious consequences to mental and emotional development.
In response to the massive toy recalls of recent years, Congress in the fall passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which imposes new lead testing requirements, restrictions and penalties on all products intended for children 12 and younger.
The law doesn't specify books as "children's products," but the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is in charge of implementing it, does.
The magic year is 1986. All books published that year and after are assumed to be safe, since regulations already were in place banning lead from printers' ink.
They're on trial.
Before Feb. 10 of next year, when the law will start to be enforced, the commission will need to determine whether pre-1986 books pose a health hazard to kids. And they'll need to tell librarians what to do.
Right now, librarians are imagining the worst-case scenario: pay $300 to test each old book, as the American Library Association estimates, destroy them all or face $100,000 in fines.
"We're talking about tens of millions of copies of children's books that are perfectly safe," said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the library association's Washington office. "I wish a reasonable, rational person would just say, 'This is stupid. What are we doing?' "
Though opponents say there is not a single instance of a child getting sick from lead in a book, safety commissioner Thomas H. Moore has said such an assertion isn't good enough to exempt books from the law. He wants proof that the books are safe.
The publishing industry has scrambled to test old books, setting up a Web site with the results. It concluded that no ink tested measured the toxic level of 600 part per million, or even a sixth of that.
The problem, though, is that those results can't be applied universally to all books, because books have never been regulated, said Allan Adler, vice president of the Association of American Publishers.
Thousands of small publishing companies are scattered throughout the country. It would be almost impossible to give the commission the kind of universal proof it wants.
The Centers for Disease Control don't have enough information, either. Spokesman Jay Dempsey urges parents to use caution.
"If you know a child is reading a book that is older than that, and they have a tendency to put things in their mouth, you probably would not want that to happen," he said. "However, I'm not trying to portray this as a very large health emergency."
As the people in Washington attempt to sort out the mess, librarians in the Tampa Bay area are keeping a close watch.
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Barbara Rooks, who supervises elementary school media centers across Hillsborough County, is trying to anticipate what she would do if old books fell under the regulation.
The problem, she said, is that copyright dates don't necessarily indicate printing. The date could say 1985, but the book may have been printed later.
Purchase records would help, if the school district keeps any that old.
And what about classroom libraries? Donated books?
"You're talking about an enormous amount of time," Rooks said. "I think more harm than good would come out of it. … You'd be wasting a lot of money because you'd be throwing stuff away."
She hastened to add that safety, in the end, will be a priority.
Mary Brown, executive director of the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative, said, "It couldn't come at a worse time."
Budgets are smaller. Staffing levels are low. The co-op isn't purchasing books at the same volume and capacity as it used to, and would not be able to test every single old book.
Brown estimates that if the commission concludes the books fall under regulation, 10 percent of Pinellas' entire children's library collection would need to be scrutinized.
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Children's tendencies to gnaw on books may actually work in the libraries' favor.
Librarians spend much of their time weeding out books with bite marks, juice stickies, torn pages and grubby fingerprints.
The younger the child's book level, the newer the books in collections will be, said Vickie Rickets, the children's librarian at downtown Tampa's John F. Germany library.
For example, toddler cardboard books don't last longer than a year. And toddlers are the most likely to put books in their mouths to begin with.
But that doesn't mean old books still don't line the shelves of local libraries.
At the Temple Terrace Public Library, the Times found half a dozen hardcover children's books, some dating back to the 1970s, within five minutes.
The books smelled old, and weren't as colorful as their new counterparts. Would kids even be attracted to them?
As 7-year-old Sydnie Harski accumulated a pile of books to take home, her father Charles didn't check the date, even after a reporter told him about the commission's questions.
He said he wouldn't worry about lead in books until someone official tells him to.
Times researcher John Martin and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.