Child-safety efforts hampered by weak laws

Parents face uphill battle to get manufacturers to take responsibility for defective products

Families bought $4.9 billion-worth of infant and toddler products last year. They also borrowed items or received hand-me-downs. But finding out which products are unsafe, or have been the subject of government recalls, is difficult.

Now, a parent's task of getting proper information to remedy defective or dangerous products has become even harder. A study shows that many of the manufacturer-hotline numbers listed on the Consumer Product Safety Commission's website often turn out to be dead ends.

The CPSC, which is the federal agency charged with protecting consumers, runs a website and phone line to give people information on products that have been recalled. Each month, dozens of baby products appear on the list. If an item has been cited for safety problems, the manufacturer gives a phone number where consumers can get help, such as a repair kit, or in some cases, where to turn the product in for a replacement.

Recently, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), a nonprofit association of consumer groups, found that 108 of the 595 hot-line numbers on CPSC's list either did not work or did not lead to a successful resolution.

A big concern, according to the CFA, is that manufacturers are under no obligation to staff a hot line and maintain it indefinitely, although many products - cribs, bunk beds, and strollers - have a long product life.

This is the latest in a series of events that has focused attention squarely on child safety and the CPSC's effectiveness.

Marla Felcher, a former professor of marketing at Northwestern University, has documented problems facing the agency in her book, "It's No Accident" (Common Courage Press, 281 pp., $17.95). She had a personal reason for doing the research: The toddler son of two friends died in a faulty portable crib. Ms. Felcher set out to investigate what could have been done to prevent the tragedy.

The result is a meticulously documented examination of the infant-products industry. Felcher uncovered data that showed products are sent to market inadequately tested. According to CPSC statistics, each year these products are involved in the deaths of 87 children under 5 and the injuries of more than 65,000 infants and toddlers.

It's also an industry that is expected to monitor itself by setting voluntary safety standards and reporting problems to the CPSC.

If that sounds a bit like the fox guarding the henhouse, says Felcher, it is. Not all companies report complaints, even though the law requires them to do so in 24 hours, if there is substantial risk of injury to consumers.

A case in point: In May, Cosco, the nation's largest manufacturer of baby products, was fined $1.3 million for failing to report product defects in strollers, cribs, car-seat carriers, and high chairs. The Cosco-owned Safety 1st was simultaneously fined $450,000 for withholding information about defective baby walkers and electric baby-wipe warmers. The combined $1.75 million fine is the largest ever levied by CPSC against a manufacturer of children's products.

Two babies died and more than 300 children were injured while using the products. Why didn't the company report?

"There was a difference in interpretation of the substantial risk factor," says Ken Mitchell, executive vice president for marketing and sales for Cosco/Safety 1st. "In hindsight," he says, "we would be much more aggressive [about reporting]."

Cosco is not unusual; more than half the injuries associated with baby products are not reported to CPSC by the manufacturers, according to an agency spokesperson.

Penalties for withholding safety information, while welcome, are not really a solution, says Felcher, pointing out that Cosco also received the agency's second largest fine in 1996, yet apparently did not change its method of reporting complaints.

And recalling a product, if it comes to that, is not an easy matter. Companies say it is impossible to locate all the consumers who have bought products or passed them on to friends.

Customers often neglect to mail in product-registration cards, making it difficult for manufacturers to contact them. Faced with a recall, companies inform the media and send out "safety alert" posters. Only in rare cases do they buy advertising to get the word out.

Compounding these reporting and recall problems is a lack of mandatory safety standards in baby products, except for car seats and full-size cribs. CPSC has no legal authority to test these products before market. Its budget and staffing are miniscule. And it is hamstrung by Section 6(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act, which imposes stringent information-disclosure restrictions on the CPSC.

CPSC chairman Ann Brown, quoted in Felcher's book, refers to 6(b) as "the bane of our existence. They tell us in our statutes to get information out to consumers. Then they tell us that we can't do it unless we give industry that information [first]. That really gives industry the control of the information flow."

Felcher describes milling about exhibits at a trade show in Dallas, thinking that "it would be tough to find a more worthwhile, cheery profit motive" than that of the baby-products industry. At the same time, Felcher says, "Congress [needs] to ask why are so many products being recalled, why are so many children being hurt? Safety standards are too lax," says Felcher. "Congress needs to give the CPSC greater authority to tighten them up."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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