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

Illustration by Adam Niklewicz

THE U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission was born out of the consumer movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1972, against the wishes of President Richard Nixon, Congress enacted the Consumer Product Safety Act, establishing the CPSC as an independent federal regulatory agency. The CPSC was endowed with broad powers: to create mandatory safety standards for consumer products, to collect and maintain a national database of product-related injuries and deaths, to recall hazardous products, and to ban products that could not be made safe by a standard.

In 1981 President Ronald Reagan pushed for and won from Congress changes that eroded the agency's authority. For example, the CPSC was restricted in its ability to establish mandatory safety standards for products if their manufacturers agreed to set standards voluntarily. It is Reagan's legacy that few durable baby products are regulated by mandatory government standards today; chief among them are car seats and cribs. (Car seats are regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.) Safety standards for almost all others are voluntary.

Safety standards specify which hazards a manufacturer must address and how a product must be tested. A manufacturer can decide to comply with voluntary standards or not, as the term implies. For some products, such as front and back baby carriers, no voluntary standard exists. A committee began work on a standard for plastic carriers with hard handles in November of 1997; it was not finished until July of this year. Few parents and caregivers know this. Nor do they know that since 1996 more than 2.8 million baby carriers of this type have been recalled, all for the same reason: the handles unexpectedly unlatch, and the infant can fall to the ground. The CPSC has reports of more than 3,000 unlatching incidents and more than a hundred injuries, including skull fractures and concussions.

Most standards are "in development" for two to five years. During this time millions of units might be sold. Standard-setting rarely keeps pace with manufacturers' marketing departments, so new products are the least likely to have been tested according to a uniform standard. Parents take safety for granted, wrongly assuming that the product wouldn't be on the market unless it had passed rigorous government tests.

The Draco All Our Kids portable crib underscores the danger of having voluntary (as opposed to mandatory) safety standards and the CPSC's lack of pre-marketing testing authority. Draco, a Taiwanese company that maintained a small office in California, sold 13,000 portable cribs from 1992 to 1994. The CPSC was alerted to a problem in October of 1994, when a Rhode Island mother reported that her toddler was standing in his crib, leaning on the top rail, and fell when the rail collapsed. The child sustained minor injuries. At the time, CPSC regulators were well aware of the dangers posed by many other brands of portable cribs; the Playskool Travel-Lite had already been recalled, and others were under investigation.

A Draco employee told CPSC investigators that the company had subjected "prototype samples" of the All Our Kids crib to the structural-integrity test specified by the voluntary standard for play yards and portable cribs: manufacturers' engineers were to apply a fifty-pound vertical force on each of the crib's top rails, at all locations considered likely to fail. According to a letter from the company to the CPSC, Jerry Teng, the president of Draco, and his chief engineer, John Wang, had supervised the development and testing of the All Our Kids crib. But when the CPSC asked for proof of this testing, the company had little to provide, explaining that most of the development was done in Taiwan.

By the time the CPSC recalled the crib, in 1996, Draco had gone out of business, the California office had been vacated with no forwarding address, and Teng had apparently moved back to Asia.

During a recall investigation most large manufacturers can demonstrate to the CPSC that their product complies with a voluntary safety standard—if a standard for that product exists. But voluntary standards often require only minimum levels of performance and fail to address all the known hazards. It is virtually impossible for a parent to know which hazards have been foreseen and forestalled: this information appears nowhere on a product.

Safety standards for infant products are written under the auspices of the American Society for Testing and Materials , which stipulates that all stakeholders (manufacturers, consumer advocates, and the CPSC) must participate in standard-setting discussions. Twice a year committees meet for four days to hash out safety standards. The same 1981 Consumer Product Safety Act amendment that limited the CPSC's right to set mandatory standards requires the agency to assist in the development of voluntary standards. Manufacturers and consumer advocates have a vote, but CPSC representatives do not. At a meeting about hard-handle carriers last February, attendance was typical: twenty-eight manufacturers, their consultants, and staff from their testing labs; seven consumer advocates; one retailer; and one CPSC regulator.

Presented by

E. Marla Felcher is the author of It's No Accident: How Corporations Sell Dangerous Baby Products.

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