Baby product recalls bedevil parents, regulators and manufacturers

Mandatory standards for products on the way

May 23, 2010|By Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

No one can expect to escape childhood without a few bumps and scrapes.

But federal regulators, manufacturers and parents are still grappling with ensuring the safety of products for babies and toddlers. Several widespread product recalls this year have stoked the debate — and made navigating the consumer market potentially heart-wrenching.

At least half of more than 500 recalls by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission each year are for children's products, said Don Mays, senior director of product safety for Consumer Reports. That doesn't include items recalled by the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Among the recent developments, the CPSC has issued a warning that only older babies should ride in soft sling-style carriers after three infants suffocated while riding in Infantino sling carriers in 2009, and at least 14 deaths have been associated with sling-style carriers in the past decade.

Last month, thousands of Simplicity and Graco cribs were recalled because they could pose serious risk to infants and toddlers. In the past nine years, more than 7 million drop-side cribs have been recalled after 32 suffocations and strangulations.

And millions of strollers have been recalled. At least 17 children have had fingers amputated by stroller hinges, and one child fractured a finger.

Rebeccah Kornberg, a 29-year-old mother who lives in Canton, said the recalls help her stay informed about potential harm. She dumped the Children's Tylenol her 9-month-old son Matthew was taking for teething relief after she read about a recent recall on her neighborhood mothers' e-mail list.

"I'd rather have the notices and have them let us know," she said. "I suppose I appreciate the recalls — it shows that they're monitoring the products."

The large number of recalls can be dizzying. While Mays said federal agencies are doing a better job of responding to safety issues, he added that there are "probably more unsafe products on the market in recent times than there have been in the past."

The reasons are varied. According to a study by the Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, more than 80 percent of products recalled in 2007 and 2008 were made in China. When manufacturing is outsourced to overseas companies, "sometimes the controls are not put into place to make sure the product are manufactured in a safe fashion," Mays said.

Increased reporting also is a factor in boosting awareness. Companies are required to report information about injuries or potential injuries caused by their products to the CPSC within 24 hours under federal law.

"People are being more vigilant and making sure they are following the law," Mays said.

Some nursery product categories are covered by mandatory government standards. Retailers point out that other products meet strict voluntary standards.

Under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, many of those standards will become mandatory in phases over the next few years for products such as toddler beds, high chairs, baby gates and play yards.

The crib standard, for example, will soon be revised to make them much stronger. The standard had been woefully out of date, according to Mays, and the durability of cribs had "gone downhill."

Most of the cribs still on the market are fixed-side cribs after ASTM International, the agency that sets the voluntary standards, eliminated drop-side designs.

People should not use cribs manufactured before 1999, according to consumer advocates. And families should inspect all cribs, especially drop-sides, to ensure that all the hardware is present and working properly.

Baby product design can present challenges as adult engineers try to anticipate how a baby will interact with a product, or how parents might use it incorrectly.

"Part of the issue here is that it's so hard to predict child behavior," Mays said. He added: "I don't believe that any crib should be manufactured in a way that it can be misassembled by a consumer."

Safety is a priority for product designers, said Michael Dwyer, executive director of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association. Despite the recent focus on recalls, Dwyer said infant products have gotten safer in recent decades. He cited CPSC data showing that since 1973, the number of crib-related deaths has declined 84 percent, and baby walker injuries have dropped 88 percent.

"Product manufacturers are very due diligent when designing products, making sure to take into consideration any risks," he said.

Stroller hinges had been used for years before the injury reports started coming in, Dwyer pointed out. After the risks with some strollers became clear, independent testing agencies and consumer advocates working with the CPSC and manufacturers developed changes to the standard.

Once the voluntary standards for a range of baby products become mandatory, those products will have to be tested before they reach the marketplace.

"Manufacturers are going to have to test products and ensure they are compliant," Mays said. "It's going to do a lot to clean up what we've been seeing. …It changes the way they're doing business, big time."

Tips for parents:

Fill out registration cards for products to receive notices about recalls

Sign up for recall alerts with the Consumer Product Safety Commission

Use and save user manual or assembly instructions

Report injuries related to products to the CPSC

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