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You know how we’re always lamenting how lame science kits have become, as hyperactive safety concerns overwhelm common sense and individual responsibility? It may get worse. See the grade school bio sciences kit above, with little more than table salt, vinegar, potting soil, plastic tools, and binder clips? If a new safety ruling takes affect, it could force anyone selling such kits to test every item in them. The ruling may be so broad as to include not only things like office supplies in classroom kits but items like rugs or lamps with images on them that might appeal to children. Anything falling under this broadening “children’s product” category would be subject to stringent and expensive testing.

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 argue that having to safety-test everything, from paper clips to rulers to binder clips, would be too expensive and… um… they’re already common household items. That salt and dirt look pretty dangerous, though. I wouldn’t let my kids near such peril.

Kids’ science kits may take hit from safety ruling

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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Comments

  1. cairn says:

    Since reading this article, I’ve done a bit of digging around to try to find more information about this. Here’s the page on the CPSIA site that gives specific information.

    http://www.cpsc.gov/about/cpsia/smbus/manufacturers.html

    I noted that there’s a specific exemption for “Certain educational materials, such as chemistry sets”. I guess the AP article is about a vote to clarify these standards.

    However, the page linked above also makes it clear that independent crafters and toy makers are subject to these rules which is news to me. I wonder how this might be applied to some of the sellers on Ponoko. For example: http://www.ponoko.com/showroom/WoodMarvels/classic-biplane-6mm–4768

    Caveat Makers.

    1. Dave says:

      Yep, this was one of the objections when the thing was passed, but if that plane was not made of unpainted natural wood then it would have to be tested. It does not matter whether or not it is marketed to kids, but if it is deemed to be appropriate for kids by the CPSC.

      The website isn’t updated any more but http://www.nationalbankruptcyday.com covered quite a few of the issues. Now that the exceptions and enforcement delays are expiring you should see the hit to Etsy, the small volume toymakers and such. Some manufacturers have already cut back their offerings in the US and others have stopped selling here – mainly low volume painted wooden stuff. Naturally the scofflaws are still exporting at full speed.

      Basically given the current political positions in the CPSC you can kiss the kids science kits goodbye and expect slowly growing enforcement to drive all other toy making into 1) unpainted/unglued/undyed toys specifically allowed by negotiated exceptions, 2) Mass production commercial tie-in or strongly branded stuff (transformers and legos) and 3) Lead contaminated imported crap sold by companies that play whack-a-mole with enforcement efforts.

      Don’t worry, eventually the kids won’t want to play with anything that inspires imagination and will be happy with only things based on movies that are mass produced overseas from un-alterable (and safer!) sealed components.

  2. Tomb says:

    Those Chemistry sets aren’t as safe as people think. With potting soil, wood ashes, and a little alcohol (any type), you can make Potassium Nitrate (KNO3). With a little KNO3, sugar (C6H12O6), and Baking Soda (NaHCO3) you have the makings of a good smoke bomb or model rocket engine not to mention the main ingredient of a slow burn wick for those smoke bombs.

  3. JennaSys says:

    “That salt and dirt look pretty dangerous” – ha! I wonder how much KNO3 is in that potting soil…and I remember a time in my early teens where I generated chlorine gas from a salt water solution because I wanted to see if I could make my own Hydrochloric Acid. Fwiw it sorta worked, though in hindsight I now realize that while it was an educational experiment, I probably would have benefited from one safety feature I didn’t have at the time – adult supervision (well that and maybe adequate ventilation too).

  4. Rahere says:

    Anything marked in big letters NOT FOR CHILDREN is, of course, guaranteed to attract exactly the kind of free-thinking kids we’d like to encourage. The tension is between the need for serious warning (remembering that nobody RTFMs), and overkill like this. This is where the kids’ centres come in, ensuring that the next generation are guided into competence. Competence means being able to handle anything – not forgetting that carelessness with the relatively innocuous can be more deadly than when Murphy’s Law disrupts the truly dangerous. The mistake is when Miss Almira Gulch, having disposed of the dangerous, continues her career tying down the cotton wool: you’re more likely to trip over the tie-downs than the cotton wool.

    1. johngineer says:

      Kids centres? I think you mean to say “this is where PARENTS come in.”

      If I was serious about getting my kid into chemistry, I wouldn’t buy a kit. I’d buy everything and do the experiments myself. As much as I like and support educational museums and the like, they are no substitute for a parent who themselves is interested in science. Set a positive example and your child will imitate you.

      That’s my opinion, anyway.

  5. geekymonkey.myopenid.com says:

    I worked in a lab where we used regular beach sand in one of our processes. But the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) said it was somewhat hazardous so we had to wear goggles and gloves when handling it. Can’t let beach sand make contact with exposed skin. That could be dangerous.

    My dad works in a lab and he wasn’t allowed to receive a delivery of distilled water because it didn’t come with a MSDS. Who knows how dangerous that water could be. Someone could drown!

    1. Simon says:

      That, of course, leads into this: http://www.dhmo.org

      1. geekymonkey.myopenid.com says:

        Dihydrogen Monoxide! Sounds scary alright! Somebody call congress!

  6. jeff-o says:

    News like this depresses me, as a parent with two young children who is eagerly anticipating all sorts of Saturday Science Experiments. But, I’m also not too worried. If I can’t get the equipment I need in a kit, I’ll buy what I need on the ‘net, and send the kids outside with a bucket and shovel to get their own dirt.

    1. Tomb says:

      Make sure it is Nitrate bearing earth. You know compost, potting soil, graveyard soil; that type of earth. Honest officer I’m just getting ingredients so that I can learn not trying to dig up a grave.;-p

  7. DanYHKim says:

    The Economist had an article entitled “Swimming and Freedom comparing the bonds of litigation that encircle Americans with the rather more responsible situation in The Netherlands:

    “Essentially, you still have the freedom to swim in the river in Amsterdam because people assume you have the common sense to avoid stupid behaviour, like diving in when you don’t know what’s underneath, or not keeping to the sides of the river during barge traffic hours. And if you don’t, it’s nobody’s fault but your own.”

    Whenever there is a tragedy, there are shouts that ‘something must be done’ and ‘never forget’. Meanwhile, systemic risks and abuses are sometimes ignored. Most people do not realize that if you just have ten thousand people cross a street, fifty to a hundred won’t make it to the other side alive (perhaps I exaggerate here).