By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010; A01
They've been a fixture in millions of American homes since the 1940s, used by parents, then passed down to friends and relatives. Now the federal government is moving to ban drop-side cribs, saying that the nursery furniture with a moveable side poses lethal dangers to children.
By the end of 2010, it will be illegal to sell a drop-side crib. And public places such as daycare centers and hotels will be prohibited from using them, federal officials said. Under rules being developed, violators would face a range of penalties, from an order to stop use to criminal sanctions for repeat offenders.
Drop-side cribs, which have one side that lowers to allow caregivers easy access to a baby or toddler, have caused at least 32 deaths in the United States since 2000, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Another 14 fatalities might be related to drop-side cribs, but investigators lacked information to make a clear link, according to agency officials.
"There have been few too many recalls and far too many deaths from defective cribs in recent years," said Inez Tenenbaum, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
A crib is meant to be safe enough to leave a child unattended; when it malfunctions, the infant is usually alone.
Since 2005, more than 7 million drop-side cribs have been recalled by manufacturers because of suffocation and strangulation hazards, including 2 million StorkCraft cribs last year, the largest single product recall in CPSC history.
It is unclear whether manufacturing changes have made the cribs more dangerous or whether the government has gotten better at pinpointing the cause of infant deaths.
Many deaths associated with drop-side cribs occurred when the moveable side partly detached, trapping the infant between the mattress and wood slats of the crib. In some cases, caregivers unwittingly installed the drop side incorrectly. In other cases, the crib hardware apparently failed and the side detached.
The crib industry says that drop-side cribs are not inherently hazardous.
"When these products are used correctly, they're perfectly safe," said Mike Dwyer, executive director of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, which represents about 90 percent of crib manufacturers. "Many of these incidents involved improper assembly. There are a lot of second-hand cribs sold through garage sales, thrift stores, and that's a problem. They have missing hardware or missing instructions . . . Some parents and caregivers are using bailing wire and duct tape."
Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids In Danger, a non-profit organization that works to improve the safety of children's products, said the fact that a crib can be assembled incorrectly is a design flaw, not the fault of the caregiver. And problems with drop-side cribs started growing after manufacturers switched to lighter, less-expensive materials, she said.
"I had all three of my kids in a drop-side crib," said Cowles, whose youngest child is now 16. "But they were different then. I think with the efforts to make cribs sleeker and the switch to more plastic, we've ended up with more drop sides that can't hold up to the use."
Federal officials do not know how many drop-side cribs are in use. They once made up about half the market of new cribs purchased, Cowles said. By early 2009, after a spate of recalls, drop sides fell to about 18 percent of 2.5 million new cribs sold annually, Dwyer said.
Because cribs can cost as much as $1,000, they are often used repeatedly, handed down to family members and friends or sold again, making it difficult to estimate what percentage of the marketplace they represent.
Cowles and other consumer advocates have been talking with federal regulators and crib manufacturers for nearly 10 years about ways to make drop-side cribs safer, but there's been little action. Federal safety standards for cribs were last updated in 1982.
In 2008, Congress ordered the safety commission to set new standards for cribs, baby bathtubs and other durable products for children. When Tenenbaum became CPSC chairman last year, she put crib safety on a fast track and told her staff to craft a ban on drop-side cribs.
At the same time, Tenenbaum urged ASTM International, the organization that sets voluntary standards for materials, products, systems and services, to prohibit drop-side cribs. "I got them on the phone, and said, 'You need to work with us right now to have the best voluntary standard possible,' " Tenenbaum told a congressional committee in January. ASTM International agreed to ban drop-side models; those voluntary standards for crib makers take effect next month.
Most of the cribs recalled in recent years met the ASTM International standards, leading consumer advocates to argue that new federal requirements should be tougher than the voluntary standards. In addition to banning drop-side cribs, the new federal standard also will require that cribs meet a certain level of mattress support and pass a "shaking test" to ensure they can withstand the jumping and pulling expected from a typical toddler, among other things. The new federal rules will require manufacturers to either make it impossible for a caregiver to incorrectly assemble a crib or use warning labels in a way that makes obvious incorrect assembly.
Anticipating these changes, most manufacturers have already stopped making drop-side cribs, Dwyer said.
Instead, they plan to produce cribs on shorter legs, so that a caregiver can more easily bend to pick up a child, or cribs that have a "drop gate," where the top five inches of one side folds down along a "piano hinge" to allow easier access to the infant, he said.
Consumer advocates and regulators say they remain concerned about the drop-side cribs still in circulation.
Anyone owning a drop-side crib should examine it thoroughly, said Patricia L. Edwards, a CPSC engineer. "If you've got a fairly new crib and it is in perfect working condition, still consider not using the drop side," she said. "But if this is your third child using the crib, or it is a hand-me-down crib from your aunt, I would recommend not using it anymore. The older a crib gets, the more problems we see."
And when the crib is no longer needed, throw it out, Cowles said. "Don't pass it on," she said.