Despite objections from the industry, Chicago on Thursday became the first city in the country to ban the sale of crib bumper pads due to concern that the popular products pose a suffocation risk to babies.
The City Council approved the ordinance in response to Tribune investigations that found federal regulators have received reports of babies suffocating for years but have failed to warn parents or investigate all deaths.
Bumper pads, which wrap around the inside of a crib and tie to crib slats, are frequently displayed in stores as a staple for nurseries. But babies can lack the motor skills and strength to turn their heads if they roll against something that blocks their breathing.
Ald. James Balcer, 11th, and Ald. George Cardenas, 12th, said they introduced the ordinance to send a message to federal regulators and other municipalities that bumper pads are not safe.
"If we were to wait for federal regulators, it probably would never get done," Balcer said. "We have a responsibility here as government to address issues like this."
The state of Maryland is considering a similar proposal to ban the sale of bumper pads, and the federal agency responsible for regulating consumer products — the Consumer Product Safety Commission — said last year that it is investigating the issue in response to Tribune articles.
Nancy Maruyama, of SIDS of Illinois, said safety advocates frequently tell parents not to put anything soft in a baby's crib. Yet bumpers are soft, and parents think, "If (stores) sell it, it must be safe," she said.
The trade group representing makers and sellers of bumper pads says the products are safe and help prevent head injuries and limb entrapment. The group also maintains there is no evidence that crib bumpers can cause suffocation.
Michael Dwyer, executive director of that organization, the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, said in a statement that banning bumper pads could lead to unintended consequences like parents putting pillows and adult blankets in babies' cribs to create makeshift bumpers.
In Chicago, the ban goes into effect in about seven months.
The city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection will enforce the ordinance, responding to complaints and checking for products during inspections of stores. Retailers who violate the ordinance can face fines up to $500 for each violation.
Representatives for Target Corp. and Babies "R" Us said their companies would comply with local laws.
It is unclear how "bumper pad" will be defined, as companies have begun designing alternatives to traditional bumper pads including mesh liners and pads that zip vertically onto crib slats.
Federal regulators have been hesitant to take a stance on the safety of bumper pads, despite deaths reported to the safety agency.
Regulators have said they are trying to determine if there is a scientific link between bumper pads and suffocations, or if factors such as blankets, pillows or medical issues played a primary role in babies' deaths.
In March, the Tribune reported that federal officials have investigated at least a dozen deaths where bumpers appeared to play a role. In those fatalities, the safety agency said bumpers were not clearly the culprit because other items were also in the crib.
But in reviewing the agency's own records, the Tribune found that in many of those cases, babies who died had their faces pressed into bumper pads.
The Tribune also found at least 17 additional cases in which the safety agency did not investigate a child's death even though the agency had reports on file suggesting bumper pads played roles in the fatalities.
The Tribune looked into some of the cases and found that medical examiners and coroners said bumper pads were involved in the suffocations.
For example, in 2006, a five-month-old baby in Michigan was found with her face pressed against the bumper pad that lined the inside of her crib. The baby's skin was blue. A medical examiner found that the baby had suffocated and federal regulators received a death certificate stating that she had been trapped against padding in the corner of her crib. Regulators hadn't investigated the case.
Bumpers were originally made to cover spaces between crib slats that were too far apart. Regulations enacted in the 1970s mandated that slats be spaced closely enough that babies wouldn't fall through or get their heads caught. But bumpers are still widely sold.
The industry trade group said it has commissioned two independent studies that show no evidence linking crib bumpers with infant deaths. However, the group will not release the studies to the Tribune.
It's unclear exactly how many babies have died from suffocating against bumpers. Medical examiners and coroners aren't required to report deaths to the safety commission.
But the federally funded National Center for Child Death Review has since 2008 received 14 reports of infant suffocation in which a bumper pad was relevant in the death.
Laura Maxwell thought bumpers were crucial for her baby, Preston's, crib. In the spring of 2010, Preston's dad found him face down with his nose pressed between the crib mattress and bumper pad. The autopsy report said the 7-week-old baby suffocated.
"You never think that something like this is going to happen to your child, especially when you are educated and trying to use all the safest products you can," Maxwell said.
Although Maxwell lives in Arkansas and not Chicago, she said she hopes similar bumper pad bans spread throughout the country.
"This is a huge step," she said.
Tribune reporters Hal Dardick and Kristen Mack contributed.
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