Goodbye to chemistry sets

Many an adult who today makes a good living — and contributes to our standard of living — as an engineer or scientist first had his or her enthusiasm for the field kindled by a home or classroom science kit.

But as the modern nanny state gets busy, such inspiration may become a thing of the past.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, known as CPSIA, requires extensive — and expensive — safety testing of products designed or intended primarily for children 12 years of age or younger, checking for lead, chemicals, flammability and other potential dangers.

Now caught up in the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s debate about the act’s regulations are those classroom science kits and some of the items they contain — including paper clips, used to show kids how magnets work.

The science kit makers had asked for a testing exemption for the paper clips and some other materials. On Wednesday, in a close 3-2 vote, the commission declined to give them the waiver they sought.

Will the manufacturers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for new tests to prove that paper clips are safe — or just leave them out? And how about home chemistry sets? We’re sure the Bunsen burners and asbestos heating pads of decades past are long gone. But will the chemicals themselves now have to be tested to find out whether they contain, you know … chemicals?

Will consumers now be carded when they buy things in the toy store .. to make sure they’re 13?

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

Right. But while the commission vote doesn’t ban the kits, manufacturers say it may 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,” warns 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.

Or used to.

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