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The Latest Children’s Clothing & Crib Recalls: By Definition, Insanity

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Although the quote has been attributed to Einstein, no one knows who said it first. But, whoever it was, their words were indeed genius:

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Case in point: In the month of May, alone, nearly 25,850 defective children’s sweatshirts and jackets have been recalled, because their drawstrings created a strangulation hazard. In April, there were 24,300. In March, a staggering 50,295. But February wins the prize for insanity, with 227,200 of these sweatshirts and jackets recalled.

Actually, this goes beyond insanity. Consider this: In 1994, in response to 17 child deaths and 42 serious accidents, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) presented evidence to the garment industry that these drawstrings, “could kill children.” The neck drawstrings could – and had killed children by strangulation, when the drawstrings got caught on slides and fences where children played, or on their crib rails. The waist drawstrings could — and had killed children by getting unknowingly caught in school bus or car doors, then dragging the children until they fell under the wheels of the moving vehicle. These drawstrings could – and had killed children whose drawstrings got entangled and pulled them into death matches with escalators, farm machinery, ski lifts….

The garment industry “promised that garments without these drawstrings would be available to consumers beginning with the Spring or Fall 1995 clothing lines.” What they didn’t promise, however, was to stop making them entirely.

In 1996, the CPSC again presented their evidence to the garment industry, only this time, they provided written guidelines (see the hood/neck guideline, below), hoping that the garment industry would voluntarily comply and stop using drawstrings. The following year, in 1997, the ASTM (the American Society for Testing and Materials, in charge of testing children’s clothing for safety) adopted the CPSC guidelines as part of their “voluntary consensus standard” titled, ASTM 1816-97, for the clothing industry. Mind you, neither the CPSC or the ASTM ever breathed the words, “ban” or “mandatory” in their guidelines and standards. They left it to the discretion of the garment industry to stop making clothing that “could kill children.”

Consumer Product Safety Commission Guidelines, issued in February 1996

Nearly 10 years later, and in the wake of more deaths and serious injuries, the CPSC decided in 2006 to post a letter on its website “to the manufacturers, importers and retailers of children’s upper outerwear, citing the fatalities and urging them to comply with the industry standard, ASTM F 1816-97. The letter explained that the CPSC staff considers children’s upper outerwear with drawstrings at the hood or neck area to be defective and to present a substantial risk of injury under section 15(c) of the Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA), 15 U.S.C. 1274(c).” To give teeth to their pleas, the CSPC also advised that they would slap these manufacturers, retailers and importers with civil fines if they continued making defective clothing. Of course, the CPSC has rarely followed through on this threat.

Is it any wonder, then, that in the year 2010, these drawstring garments continue to be manufactured by the billions and recalled by the millions each year? Is it any wonder that, since the CPSC issued its first warning in 1994, another dozen children — ages 2 through 14 — have been strangled or maimed or pulled into machinery or dragged under the wheels of moving vehicles in accidents caused by these drawstrings?

Here, it’s difficult to know who to blame. Do we blame the manufacturers (dozens of them in 2010, alone, hailing from all over the globe, from China to Mexico, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Peru, Pakistan, India and the U.S.) who have spent the past 16 years thumbing their nose at the evidence that their garments “could kill children”? Or should we blame the CPSC and the ASTM for their milquetoast response to these deaths? Or should we blame the retailers (e.g. various department stores & boutiques, but especially Burlington Coat Factory, which carries the bulk of these recalled garments) for repeatedly stocking their shelves with these sweatshirts, jackets and coats? Or do we blame the consumers, who keep the law of supply and demand alive by continually buying these defective clothes?

Whoever is to blame, the fact remains that — in 2010 alone — there have been 327,645 children’s garments recalled because they were made with built-in hangman’s nooses. Granted, the short-term remedy is simple enough. Remove the drawstrings or, if they’re sewn in, cut the strings off before allowing the child to wear the garment. But this really isn’t enough. After all, this same insanity has been playing out for years with other children’s products — from toys to jewelry to furniture & accessories.

During the first 5 months of 2010, for instance, there have been over 1.5 million cribs recalled due to suffocation and strangulation hazards. This is just a fraction of the 7 million that have been recalled over the past 5 years — a toll that doesn’t even take into account the number of recalled Simplicity brand cribs sold over the past decade or so, whose numbers are unknown and, according to the CSPC, can’t be counted. Since 2000, forty-six children have been killed in defective cribs. Many more have been injured, some suffering permanent brain damage.

Just this month, the CSPC again issued a “warning” to parents against using drop-side cribs (a warning that encompasses just about any crib brand or manufacturer you could name: Storkcraft, Graco, Simplicity and Fisher Price, along with a slew of “boutique” brands). The parents got a warning, while the manufacturers still have carte blanche to keep making them until the proposed ban on the sale of these cribs takes effect at year’s end.

In response, some, but not all crib manufacturers have promised to stop making drop-side cribs real soon, no kidding. Of course, drop-sides are not the only dangerous flaw to crib designs. The manufacturers know this, and so do the CPSC and ASTM. One design flaw, which I personally found present among the inventory of every single crib retailer I recently visited (from elite boutiques to department stores, and from $150 cribs to $1500 cribs) were corner posts and design elements on the upper crib rail that extended over 1/16″ in height — a potentially deadly flaw that is nothing short of criminal on the part of the crib manufacturers. They know better.

For their part, the ASTM has announced plans to introduce tougher guidelines on cribs by year’s end, which will hopefully be tougher than their existing standards and testing, which gave a green light to most of the 7 million cribs that have been recalled over the past 5 years. Not to mention the millions of drawstring garments that have been recalled since the ASTM issued their voluntary standards 13 years ago.

On a related note, the CPSC is still hard at work on those drawstrings. Sixteen years ago, the CPSC described their efforts to stop the sale of these garments as a “fiery determination and creativity to solve the problem.” Today, the CPSC is poised to make a rule that will “enhance understanding in the [garment] industry about how the Commission views such garments.” Reading that line, I can almost hear Scarlett O’Hara breathing those words into Rhett’s ear, using her sultriest southern accent.  The CPSC’s goal is modest. They simply want to rephrase their earlier plea to the garment industry, changing the verbiage to reflect this truth: children’s clothing with drawstrings “constitutes substantial product hazards.”

Granted, the wording isn’t quite as strong as it was 16 years ago, when the CPSC advised the garment industry that such clothing “could kill children.”  But, heck, maybe the CPSC is onto something. Maybe that’s the key: tone down the verbiage, and quit prattling on about dead children. Try that, and see if those manufacturers don’t stop making products that could kill children.  If that doesn’t work, heck, ten years down the road, you can always consider a law to ban the things outright.

There’s a word for people who do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. It’s called insanity. But I wouldn’t necessarily accuse manufacturers of dangerous children’s clothing, cribs, jewelry and toys as being insane, just soulless. They’ve done the math. The payout in potential lawsuits for wrongful deaths and injuries pales in comparison to the killing they can make selling defective items. And apparently business is good enough that — even with billions of recalled products each year — there’s still big money in manufacturing dangerous products. The retailers, such as Burlington Coat Factory, have done the math, too. They know that —  even with the occasional $600,000 civil penalty for selling hazardous products — there’s a killing to be made retailing defective goods. For their part, the CPSC and the ASTM are, at best, impotent to fulfill their roles as the vanguards of product safety; at worst, they’re in the pockets of industry, just like everyone else.

But the consumers who knowingly buy these defective products over and over and over — they’re the ones who sustain the demand for defective products. Whether it’s a hangman’s noose, a death trap disguised as a crib, a pretty trinket laced with cadmium and lead, or a toy with small parts that even a monkey could see would choke a child, the consumers keep buying them.

The sane thing would be to stop buying defective products. Stop buying drop-side cribs, clothing with drawstrings, cheap children’s jewelry from China, toys with small parts. Then, like magic, the manufacturers would stand up and do the right thing. They’d stop making them faster than you can say show me the bottom line. They might even roll out a campaign, patting themselves on the back for taking the initiative to stop selling dangerous products for children. Let them do this. The important thing is that the children — past, present and future — who are killed by these products do not die in vain.

For more information or to take action:

CRIB SAFETY: For more advice on crib safety, and how to assess if your crib is safe, visit the CPSC pages, Safe Sleep Part I: The Crib and Crib Safety Tips.

CLOTHING SAFETY: Read CPSC’s documentation and proposed new rule, dated May 17, 2010 and titled, “The Determination That Children’s Upper Outerwear in Sizes 2T to 12 With Neck or Hood Drawstrings and Children’s Upper Outerwear in Sizes 2T to 16 With Certain Waist or Bottom Drawstrings Are a Substantial Product Hazard.”

  • From this same webpage, you can also access the Federal eRulemaking Portal, where you can submit your own comments on the CPSC’s proposed rule. To leave a comments, simply follow the link to the Federal eRulemaking Portal, then enter the CPSC document number CPSC-2010-0043 into the keyword/ID space on this page and click “search.” This will take you to a page where you can leave a comment. A sample comment might read: As a member of the American public, which your agency serves to protect from dangerous products, I would demand that the CPSC set aside this latest effort to urge voluntary compliance with the garment industry. I would ask that you put an immediate end to 16 years of ineffective CPSC guidelines and, instead, institute an outright mandatory ban on the types of drawstring garments you describe in your proposed rule. To do any less pays a grave disrespect to the painful lessons left by the children who were killed by these dangerous products.

PRODUCT RECALLS: To keep up to date on current product recalls, make regular visits to the CPSC Recall pages, where you can also observe an insane pattern, as the same types of dangerous products get recalled over and over and over again. While you’re at it, you may as well also visit the FDA Recalls pages, where you can see the latest food and drug recalls. Here, you will also observe a similarly insane pattern, as the same types of dangerous products get recalled over and over and over again.

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