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Kids’ science kits could take hit from new safety ruling


Science kit makers say the items in the kits aren't harmful to children and would be too costly to test.
Science kit makers say the items in the kits aren't harmful to children and would be too costly to test.

One of the tools that teachers often use to get kids jazzed about science—hands-on science kits—could face an uncertain future amid a debate over 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. Caught up in the debate are those classroom science kits and some of the items they contain, such as paper clips to show kids how magnets work.

The science kit makers had asked for a testing exemption for the paper clips and some other materials. The commission declined to write the waiver they sought into the guidance it approved Sept. 29 on a split, 3-2 vote.

The guidance is supposed to help sort out which products have to be tested under legislation passed by Congress more than two years ago that requires rigorous safety checks for lead, chemicals, flammability, and other potential dangers.

The 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, would force them to refocus and market kits to older children instead of the 12-and-under crowd the law targets.

After the vote, CPSC Chair Inez Tenenbaum sought to reassure people that “there is nothing in this rule that bans science kits.”

While it doesn’t ban the kits per se, manufacturers say it might crimp the supply of kits for elementary school children.

“If the first introduction a student has is seventh or eighth grade, you’ve lost them already,” said Steve Alexander, business manager for the Hands On Science Partnership, based in Denver. The costs associated with “the testing requirements would far exceed the value of the materials in the kits,” he said.

The partnership is a coalition of companies that sell hands-on science educational materials.

Consumer advocates say they are sympathetic to the costs associated with the safety testing, but they 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 issue before the commission—coming up with a clearer definition of a children’s product—has 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 on the issue has been bumped three times already.

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. Those same rugs minus the fairies or trains would not have to undergo the additional, often costly testing.

The Halloween industry, for example, says a superhero costume can be worn by teenagers and adults, so it shouldn’t necessarily be classified as a children’s product. Handmade toy makers argued to the commission that child-sized musical instruments are similar to adult-sized instruments.

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 the law’s passage, critics have decried confusion in the marketplace about what products have to be tested, and how often.

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