When a friend's 17-month-old son got his neck stuck in the collapsing side rails of a portable crib and choked to death, E. Marla Felcher was stunned. Then she got angry.
She had assumed it was a freak day care accident, but that wasn't entirely true. The toddler's crib had been recalled five years earlier -- but neither the government nor its manufacturer had done much to inform buyers.
Worse, she soon discovered that untested and unsafe products were hardly uncommon in the infant products industry, and that the government's primary watchdog, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, can do little about it.
"The problem is that there's no way for a parent to know whether the next thing they buy will perform just like that crib," says Felcher, 44, a former Gillette executive and college professor who grew up in Pikesville and now lives in Cambridge, Mass.
About 65,000 children are taken to hospital emergency rooms each year for treatment of injuries associated with infant care products including high chairs, car seats and many others. The manufacture of these baby goods is a $4.5 billion industry, but it's a mostly self-regulated business - with makers setting voluntary safety guidelines.
Last month, the industry's largest company, Cosco, Inc., was fined a record $1.7 million for failing to report hundreds of injuries and two deaths resulting from its products. Last week, 3.4 million Evenflo Joyride infant car seats / carriers were recalled for defective handles that have injured at least 457 babies.
After a 2- 1/2 -year investigation, Felcher has written a book, "It's No Accident" (Common Courage Press, $17.95), that decries the tactics used by corporations. She recently discussed her findings.
How concerned should parents be about the safety of infant products?
They should be very concerned primarily because parents assume these products wouldn't be sold if they weren't safe and that they've been tested before they show up on store shelves. That simply isn't true.
Can the industry be trusted to regulate itself?
The central problem is that the Consumer Product Safety Commission budget and power were slashed during the Reagan years and Clinton did little to bring them back to even 1980 levels. At the same time, the infant products industry has doubled and there's no way the commission can keep up with the manufacturers. We can't rely on them to self-regulate.
Is the nursery really more dangerous today than it was a generation ago? After all, most people don't have baby walkers or wooden cribs with big open spaces between their bars.
It's more dangerous today because there are so many different products. We didn't have portable cribs or Baby Bjorn infant carriers. We didn't have so much stuff. Consumers want these things. We demand these products but retailers put a lot of cost pressure on manufacturers. Of course, I'm not sure consumers would demand these products if they knew their safety track records. While I'd agree full-size cribs are safer now, so many older cribs are still out there and grandparents have sentimental attachments to them. I assume car seats are safer than 20 years ago, but they're still among the most frequently recalled products.
Are there certain baby products to stay away from?
Walkers. There's no situation where children should be put into walkers. Baby bath seats are the same way. Ask any parents if they would leave an 8-month-old alone in a bathtub. For some reason, they have the confidence to do that with a bath seat.
Does that make the bath seat dangerous, or is it the parents leaving their children alone in the bath?
I debate [with] the industry lawyers about this a lot. They say the problem with bath seats is a behavior problem. I argue that the child wouldn't be left unattended if not for the bath seat. If manufacturers put on their product box a large warning that so many children have died using them, I'd be fine with it. So far, 70 children have died in drownings associated with bath seats. That's a lot of kids.
Warning statements are pretty common on infant products, but you point out that they tend to be vague.
These aren't written with safety in mind. They're written with product liability in mind. I've been in meetings with these guys when they hash out and argue what this wording is going to be. They don't want parents to be scared away -- and in some cases, they should.
How can I figure out whether my child's crib or carrier or whatever is unsafe?
The only sure way is to get information from Consumer Product Safety Commission, either by their Web site (www.CPSC.gov) or by calling their toll-free number (1-800-638-CPSC). You can request the information by product or by brand. Be sure to ask for lists of products recalled. The most important step is to be put on the recall notification system -- that will keep you updated about future recalls.
You also write that parents must take particular responsibility to report problems with their infant products -- because injuries and mishaps are largely unreported.
They do. A lot of us are convinced that it's hard for our voices to be heard. Most people don't report these kinds of things to companies and they don't complain when they have a product failure. This is a situation where your voice will be heard. You've got to call the manufacturer and the CPSC and report it. That's how products get recalled. Even if your child isn't hurt but the product fails, you can literally save the life of another child.
How can the industry be made safer?
Certain products such as infant carriers, toddler beds with guard rails, high chairs, portable cribs, strollers, infant swings and cradles ... tend to be recalled the most and should meet safety standards set by the CPSC. I also believe Congress should at least double the agency's budget. If there's some way to even strengthen the voluntary standards, that would be OK with me. If there's one thing Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on, it should be the safety of our kids.