It's hard to believe, but true: under a law Congress passed last year aimed at regulating hazards in children's products, the federal government has now advised that children's books published before 1985 should not be considered safe and may in many cases be unlawful to sell or distribute. Merchants, thrift stores, and booksellers may be at risk if they sell older volumes, or even give them away, without first subjecting them to testing — at prohibitive expense. Many used-book sellers, consignment stores, Goodwill outlets, and the like have accordingly begun to refuse new donations of pre-1985 volumes, yank existing ones off their shelves, and in some cases discard them en masse.
The pretext is lead.
Not until 1985 did it become unlawful to use lead pigments in the inks, dyes, and paints used in children's books. Before then — and perhaps particularly in the great age of children's-book illustration that lasted through the early twentieth century — the use of such pigments was not uncommon, and testing can still detect lead residues in books today. This doesn't mean that the books pose any hazard to children. While lead poisoning from other sources, such as paint in old houses, remains a serious public health problem in some communities, no one seems to have been able to produce a single instance in which an American child has been made ill by the lead in old book illustrations — not surprisingly, since unlike poorly maintained wall paint, book pigments do not tend to flake off in large lead-laden chips for toddlers to put into their mouths.