WASHINGTON – One of the tools that teachers use to get kids jazzed about science — hands-on science kits — could face an uncertain future amid a debate on safety.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been mired for weeks in deliberation as it writes guidelines on what makes a product a "children's product" — and consequently which products would have to undergo more stringent safety testing as part of a 2008 law. Caught up in the debate are the classroom science kits and some of the items they contain, such as paper clips to show kids how magnets work.
Science kit makers asked for a testing exemption for the paper clips and other materials. The commission declined to grant them a blanket waiver as part of the guidance the agency approved Wednesday on a 3-2 vote.
The guidance for businesses is supposed to help sort out which products have to be tested under legislation passed by Congress over two years ago that requires rigorous safety checks for lead, chemicals, flammability and other potential dangers.
Science kit makers argue the paper clips, rulers and other items in the kits aren't harmful to children, would be too expensive to test, and shouldn't have to be tested because they are everyday items found in homes and schools that don't have to be tested if bought separately at retail. A requirement to test, they say, could force them to market kits to schools for older children instead of the 12-and-under crowd the law covers.
After the vote, CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum sought to reassure people that "there is nothing in this rule that bans science kits."
And while it doesn't ban them, the manufacturers say it may cease the supply of kits for elementary school children because of the required testing for a number of items in them.
During debate before the vote, however, it was still unclear if makers would be required to test all of objects in the kits, like the paper clips. And the document that was approved does not explicitly say whether testing is required. Other factors would have to be considered such as the packaging on the kits and whether it is geared for kids 12 and under.
The overall issue before the commission — coming up with a clearer definition of a children's product — was broader than the science kits and caused weeks of discussion, late-night meetings and some angst at CPSC, an agency charged with making sure that thousands of products on the market are safe. A vote had previously been delayed three times.
While it's clear that an Elmo telephone toy for a toddler falls under the law and requires additional testing, there are products that linger in a gray area — such as the science kits or lamps and rugs that are decorated with fairies or trains.
Commissioner Anne Northup was critical, saying the guidance for businesses did not carve out products that pose little or no risk, such as a simple teddy bear lamp in a child's room. While a lamp adorned with the teddy bear could be considered a child's product, the same lamp without the bear decoration could be placed in a child's room and require no testing whatsoever.
"We are not making reasonable decisions," she said before her vote against the guidance document.
Consumer advocates say they are sympathetic to the costs associated with the safety testing, but insist the tests must be done.
"The reason for this law is to ensure that products for children are safe," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel at the Consumer Federation of America. "The universe for where there is ambiguity on testing is a relatively small one."
The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, known as CPSIA, defines a children's product as an item designed or intended primarily for children 12 years of age or younger. Since passage, critics — homemade craft makers, libraries, ATV manufacturers and others — have decried confusion in the marketplace about which products require testing and certification.
Consumer Product Safety Commission: http://www.cpsc.gov