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

After Danny died, his parents, Linda Ginzel and Boaz Keysar (both professors at the University of Chicago), founded Kids in Danger (www.kidsindanger.org), a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to teaching parents how to protect their children from unsafe products. Ginzel and Keysar initiated and championed the Children's Product Safety Act , which was signed into law in August of last year by the governor of Illinois, George Ryan. The law makes it illegal to sell or lease a children's product that has been recalled, and ensures that recalled products are not used in licensed day-care facilities. Hailed as model legislation by the CPSC, the law was enacted in Michigan last June.

HOW did such a product make its way to store shelves in the first place? When I called the CPSC for an explanation, Russ Rader, the public-affairs officer, told me that his agency was prohibited by the Consumer Product Safety Act from releasing all of the product-specific information I wanted. For thorough answers I turned to the Freedom of Information Act , which provides the public with direct access to documents held by federal agencies.

I filed a request for documents on Baby Trend, Century Products, Draco (not to be confused with Graco, another manufacturer of products for infants), Evenflo, and Playskool portable cribs. It was months before the documents arrived. Section 6(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act was largely to blame for this delay. Sometimes referred to as a "reverse FOIA,"6(b) requires the CPSC to allow the manufacturer an opportunity to comment on the information (including testing data, consumer complaints, warranty claims)that the CPSC plans to release in response to a FOIA request if the company is identified by name. The CPSC is the only health-and-safety agency with such a restrictive statute.

Over the next year I filed dozens more requests for CPSC files on products certain models of which had been associated with the injury or death of children, including Safety 1st bed rails and bath seats, Century TraveLite Sport strollers , Century Lil'Napper infant swings, Baby Bjorn infant carriers , Playskool 1-2-3 high chairs , and Cosco cribs , toddler beds, and infant swings. Most of my requests were answered within three months. But the files had obviously contained information that someone didn't want me to see: individual pages or entire documents had been removed, and sentences had been deleted by hand, with swipes of a black felt-tip pen.

Censorship notwithstanding, the files told a story that the official recall press releases had failed to reveal. Thick with the minutiae of childhood death (autopsy reports, notes of police investigations, pictures of dummies arranged in products to simulate the death scenario, a grandmother's letter describing how her grandson had been caught in the restraint straps of an infant swing and nearly strangled, a CPSC engineer's report concluding that an infant carrier still on the market presented a risk to children), the files described in excruciating detail how children had been injured or had died.

What struck me first about the CPSC files was the frequency of stories like Danny's. A file on certain models of the Graco Converta-Cradle included seventeen investigation reports of incidents, involving nine deaths. A letter to me from the Freedom of Information officer at the CPSC clearly stated that more incidents had occurred but that 6(b) and other Freedom of Information exemptions prevented him from releasing those files to me. The file on baby carriers described 185 incidents from 1990 to 1999, most of them falls. The file on infant swings described fifteen asphyxiation deaths.

One after another, the stories played out the same way. A baby was injured or died at home or at a day-care center. The CPSC was notified. When the CPSC had accumulated sufficient information to suggest that a product was associated with a systematic pattern of injuries or deaths, the agency deemed the product too hazardous to sell, and recalled it. Whereas the Food and Drug Administration has the budget and the authority to test products before they are put on the market, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has extensive authority to set mandatory safety standards for motor vehicles, the CPSC can do little to prevent inadequately tested products from being sold.

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