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

Bath seats, which are designed for bathing an infant in a regular bathtub, illustrate how inadequate this process is. A bath seat, made of plastic, is affixed to the bottom of the tub with suction cups. The baby's legs straddle a plastic post attached to a chest-high plastic ring that surrounds him. The baby can hold on to the ring for support. The CPSC estimates that about a million bath seats a year are sold in the United States—one for every four live births.

Bath seats hit the U.S. market in 1981, with no voluntary safety standard in place. The CPSC first learned of a bath-seat drowning in 1983. By the end of 1994, with eighteen fatalities having been reported, the commission requested that the industry begin work on a voluntary bath-seat standard. Paul Ware, of Safety 1st, was elected to chair the safety-standard committee. Safety 1st is a major player in the bath-seat market, and a safety standard might require a redesign of the product.

The CPSC believed that two features of bath seats were contributing to the majority of deaths: leg openings that were larger than they needed to be, and suction cups that didn't always do their job. Instead of straddling the plastic post, an infant could fit both legs through one leg opening and then slip through and drown—a phenomenon called "submarining." The agency pushed Ware's committee to prevent such incidents by incorporating a maximum leg opening into the standard. The suction cups were hazardous for two reasons: they came off too easily, and if the bottom of the bathtub was covered with an anti-skid strip or appliqué, the suction cups didn't always stick. Without adequate suction the bath seat was more likely to tip over. The CPSC asked Ware's committee to address these issues, too.

In April of last year, after five years of work, during which time forty-three more infant deaths were reported (including at least ten associated with the Safety 1st bath seat), the bath-seat committee approved the safety standard. It did not call for any significant structural changes:the leg openings are just as wide, and the suction cups are just as likely to detach. In other words, the committee disregarded the CPSC's requests, the arguments of consumer advocates, and the continuing death toll. The product is as dangerous as it ever was: bath-seat drownings remain stable at a rate of about eight a year.

How can companies market such a dangerous product? They lay the blame for drownings on irresponsible parents, arguing that incidents happen because children are left alone. Parents believe they should never leave a child unattended in a bathtub, yet data on bath-seat drownings indicate that too many caregivers do exactly that. Thinking that a baby is safe in a bath seat, a parent leaves for a minute to answer the phone or to respond to another child. In fact, according to Clay Mann, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah who is affiliated with the Intermountain Injury Control Research Center , bath seats increase the probability that a caregiver will leave a child unattended in a bathtub. By providing a "hands-free" support for the baby, bath seats foster the impression that it is safe to leave a child alone "just for a minute," and actually increase the likelihood that a child will drown.

Most large baby-product manufacturers appear to be cognizant of these dangers, and have avoided the bath-seat market altogether. It is ironic, then, that a leading bath-seat manufacturer is named Safety 1st. "One provision CPSC had manufacturers agree to is that they would never put on the outside of the box that the [bath seat] is a 'safety device,'" a CPSC regulator says. "But we couldn't do anything about the name Safety 1st.... People just look at their box and look at the name of the company and assume it is a 'safety' product."

On July 25 the Consumer Federation of America and eight other consumer groups filed a petition with the CPSC, asking the agency to ban the product completely, arguing that it poses "an unreasonable risk of injury and death to children."

The risks associated with consumer products will never be completely eliminated. People will always manage to be injured by seemingly innocuous products such as lawn ornaments and videocassette recorders. The problem is not how to prevent deaths that occur in unforeseen, highly improbable circumstances. Rather, the problem is how to fix a regulatory system that allows so many babies to die in brand-name products before and after the products are recalled. These deaths were not unforeseen, and more are certain to occur. Manufacturers who fail to test their products sufficiently and a government agency plagued by inadequate funding and restrictive statutes are responsible.

In 1997 a Government Accounting Office report noted that the Consumer Product Safety Commission had carried out its mission with a budget of $42.5 million, a decrease of 60 percent since 1974 (adjusted for inflation), and a staff of 480—43 percent fewer positions than in 1974. Today the agency's budget is a mere $50 million, and its staff remains frozen at 480. At the same time, many of the industries the CPSC regulates have grown rapidly—among them, home-improvement equipment, snowmobiles, scooters, and baby products. Clearly, the agency needs more funding to carry out its work. "If I could double our budget," says a CPSC regulator, "the agency would be stronger." At the top of the wish list: funds to hire more engineers and lawyers and to build more-sophisticated testing labs. In the meantime, manufacturers continue to pump new baby products into the retail pipeline, and consumers continue to buy them.

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