Children's Products and Risk

The Consumer Products Safety Commission was created to ensure the safety of products for infants, among others. But it can't



Illustration by Adam Niklewicz
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LAST year parents, grandparents, and other caregivers spent $4.9 billion on cribs, cradles, baby carriers, car seats, high chairs, strollers, and other products for infants and toddlers. They were paying for things that were not widely used fifteen or twenty years ago: lightweight portable cribs that easily collapse for storage, car seats that double as baby carriers, oversized strollers for parents who jog. These products, however, are often hazardous. Last year more than 65,000 children were taken to emergency rooms for injuries associated with products for infants—yet most parents are unaware of the dangers.

Because the infant-products industry is now consolidated in the hands of a few large companies, because distribution is widespread over the Internet and through huge retailers such as Wal-Mart and Babies 'R' Us, and because magazines that target parents have proliferated, manufacturers can rapidly saturate the market with new products. By the time a product is found to be dangerous and recalled, hundreds of thousands or even millions of units may already be in use.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is the federal agency charged with ensuring the safety of consumer goods. Last year the CPSC recalled ninety-five toys and infant products, adding up to tens of millions of units. Recalls have included certain models of Cosco tandem strollers , after 3,000 complaints that the locks on the folding mechanism failed. This could cause the stroller to collapse unexpectedly, and it resulted in injuries to more than 200 babies, including head injuries and lacerations requiring stitches. Also recalled were some Evenflo Snugli soft infant carriers, after thirteen reports that babies had fallen through the leg openings, and seven million Graco infant swings made before November of 1997—after 181 falls were reported, twenty-two infants were caught at the neck or the chest, and six children died.

When the CPSC initiates the recall of a product, it generally persuades the manufacturer to notify retailers that the product can no longer be sold and to issue a joint press release specifying why the product has been recalled and what people who own it should do (for example, stop using it and request further instructions from the company). The CPSC sends these press releases to television stations, magazines, and newspapers, and also makes them available on its Web site, at www.cpsc.gov (the commission's hotline phone number is 800-638-2772).

Illustration by Adam NiklewiczManufacturers know that strongly worded, alarming press releases are likely to attract reporters' attention. And they know that well-publicized recalls can invite product-liability suits, damage their corporate image, and reduce the value of their stock. The language used in recall press releases is negotiated at highly secretive meetings between CPSC staff members and manufacturers' lawyers, product engineers, and public-relations experts. "The manufacturer wants to minimize the hazards, and the CPSC wants to maximize them," says Bengt Lager, whose company, Regal Lager, is the exclusive U.S. distributor of Baby Bjorn products. Manufacturers try to avoid press-release headlines that announce a straight "recall,"because they fear that consumers will think the product must be returned. Instead a "recall to repair" will instruct customers to get in touch with the company for a free repair kit. A recall notice in 1995 for the Playskool 1-2-3 high chair (cracked joints sometimes caused the chair to collapse) was headlined "Recall to Repair."In 1997 a press release issued for some models of the same product (this time the restraint bar broke) was headlined "Recall to Repair Restraint Bar,"and mentioned nothing about the weak joints. (Hasbro, the owner of the Playskool brand, received at least 4,500 consumer complaints before the chair was recalled the first time.)Thus it is not surprising that these press releases are not always considered newsworthy.

On the afternoon of May 12, 1998, in Chicago, a sixteen-month-old, Danny Keysar , was put down for a nap in a Playskool Travel-Lite portable crib by his day-care provider, Anna. When Anna checked on Danny a little while later, she found that the crib had collapsed while he was standing, trapping his neck in the V of its folded rails. Danny was no longer breathing. Though the toddler weighed only twenty-five pounds, the rails collapsed under his weight, folding shut at the center hinges.

Anna had been caring for the child in her home for ten months, and as a licensed day-care provider, she was required to undergo periodic safety inspections. Illinois inspectors had been to the home just eight days before the incident occurred. After Danny's funeral a newspaper reporter discovered that his death was not an isolated incident: four other children had died in Playskool Travel-Lite cribs. (One other child died three months later.) The government had deemed the Travel-Lite dangerous and had ordered it off the market five years earlier, in a product recall. But it was not the only portable crib that had been recalled. From 1993 to 1997 more than 1.5 million portable cribs with a similar design (center hinges on the top rails)—marketed by other companies whose names parents associate with good products for children, such as Baby Trend , Century Products , and Evenflo —were recalled (see the CPSC Web site for model numbers). In 1991 an eleven-month-old in Los Angeles became the first baby known to have died in one of these cribs, and Danny is believed to have been the twelfth.

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