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Drive to Shred Documents Puts Kids and Pets at Risk

By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 9, 2006

As worries about identity theft have driven millions of Americans to buy document-shredding machines, safety officials and pediatricians are warning they can be hazardous, particularly to children and pets.

Since 2000, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has received 50 reports of injuries from home-shredder machines, including lacerations and amputated fingers. Almost two-thirds of the incidents involved children younger than 5, and some occurred even when there was adult supervision, prompting the agency to issue a safety alert warning parents to never allow children to operate a shredder.

George L. Foltin, director of the Center for Pediatric Emergency Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, saw a 2-year-old girl with a shredder injury: The fingers of her right hand had been crushed and lacerated.

"It was a horrific injury," said Foltin, enough to prompt him to co-author an article in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "If you saw one case of smallpox, you don't need to see 10 of them. This was a sentinel event," Foltin said in a telephone interview.

The Pediatrics article urged doctors to ask parents about the presence and accessibility of home shredders. It warned parents to keep shredders in inaccessible locations above toddler height, to keep them unplugged when not in use and to never allow children to operate them, even with adult supervision.

CPSC spokeswoman Patty Davis said the agency also is aware of at least five incidents in which dogs had their tongues caught in shredders. Some of the dogs had to be euthanized, Davis said.

The fact that dogs have been hurt "tells me how amazingly easy it is to injure yourself," Foltin said.

Ted LaVigne of Dale City said his then-2-year-old daughter Dominique got her middle finger caught in the shredder three years ago as his wife was feeding papers into the machine. "My daughter must have latched onto one of the papers," LaVigne said. His wife tried to slowly free her daughter's middle finger, but it wasn't easy and "may have done some more damage," LaVigne said. Two of Dominique's fingers are scarred, and there may be long-term damage; it won't be known until she is older.

In some incidents, children's fingers have become so lodged in the shredder that they had to be pried loose at an emergency room. One such case involved then-5-year-old Jared Lawson, who was using a shredder with his mother's supervision in March 2004. "We were packing and ran out of paper," recalled Jared's mother, Lora Lawson, who lives in a Dallas suburb. As she reached to get more paper, Jared's hand was sucked in. "The screaming that comes with that is something you'll never forget," she said.

Lawson tried to remove Jared's hand but could not. Neither could the paramedics. Jared finally had to be placed under general anesthesia before the shredder could be removed by a tool normally used to break plaster casts. "His fingers looked like ground meat when they came out of the machine; the bones in the third and fourth fingers were crushed and one had been partially amputated."

Patricia Pulido's beagle had his tongue caught in a shredder in the first 30 minutes it was in her house in Arizona. "He was curious, and we're guessing he smelled fresh oil" from the machine, Pulido said. She could not remove the shredder herself; the animal emergency room had to use a hacksaw. The beagle, B.J., now has two little niches on both sides of his tongue. "It almost looks like a snake." And the shredder is no longer in the house. "I shred paper by hand," Pulido said.

But more Americans are using the machines. From 2000 to 2004, shredder sales grew an average of 5 percent a year, to $350 million from $280 million, according to the School, Home and Office Products Association. But in 2005, sales grew by 16 percent, to $406 million.

"The industry is very much aware of the potential hazard" said the association's president, Steven Jacober. Several firms already have redesigned their shredders to reduce risks, while the industry as a whole is working with CPSC officials and the independent testing organization Underwriters Laboratories Inc. to develop a new voluntary safety standard for shredders sold in the United States.

There have been about 10 lawsuits filed against Royal Consumer Information Products Inc., which sells about 25 percent of shredders nationwide. Most of the lawsuits have been settled. "We're very concerned," said Todd Althoff, Royal's vice president for marketing and product development. The company has redesigned its machines and "done everything we can to try to prevent any accident," he said, adding that there is nothing inherently wrong with the shredder. "The problems we've had is that parents have allowed children -- very young children, 2 and under -- to shred paper and use it as a toy. It's not a toy."

In a study of shredder injuries, the CPSC staff said young children use the machine differently than adults. "Adult users tend to let go of the paper to permit it to complete its travel. In contrast, pre-logical-thinking children are not conscious of hazards to themselves and, therefore, may not let go of the paper -- holding onto it as it is being pulled in."

Growing concerns about shredder safety reflect changes in how the product is being used, said John Drengenberg, Underwriters Laboratories' consumer affairs manager. Until recently, the shredder was primarily used in offices, and there were "never any problems because adults were cognizant of what they were doing."

The CPSC staff said that the UL safety standard for shredders was not designed with toddlers in mind. Shredders were supposed to be designed in such a way that it was impossible to insert a finger-sized probe into the opening. The CPSC staff said the probe used in the test was too large to protect small children's fingers. UL said its test was adequate, but nonetheless it is working with the agency and manufacturers to develop a new test that uses a smaller and thinner probe. "I can't even think of baby fingers that thin," Drengenberg said.

The standard is expected to be approved by the industry quickly. Even so, it won't take effect for at least another 15 months. While some machines may already meet the standard or will meet it before that deadline, there are still millions of older shredders in homes that do not.

That concerns Mike Atkinson, a Tulsa lawyer who has filed 10 lawsuits representing shredder-injury victims.

"Parents need to remember that paper shredders and children do not mix," Atkinson said.

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