Infant Deaths Lead To Big Crib Recall
Actions of CPSC Face New Criticism
Saturday, September 22, 2007; Page D01
One million cribs sold under the Graco and Simplicity brands were recalled yesterday because of a design flaw that led to the deaths of two infants. Two other babies have died in cribs made by the same company, which has had three recalls in two years.
The persistent problems with the cribs, made by Simplicity, of Reading, Pa., raise new questions about the authority and effectiveness of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The agency has faced intense public scrutiny since this summer's recall of millions of imported toys for lead and other hazards. Though the cribs and the toys were assembled in China, the crib failures were the result of design rather than manufacturing flaws.
The toy recalls have prompted calls for an increase in the agency's funding, which has been cut in recent years, but Pamela Gilbert, a former CPSC executive director, said yesterday's recall reflects problems beyond resource constraints.
"When a baby dies, there should be a more thorough review and more thorough fix," she said. "They have enough resources to investigate the design of a crib and investigate the circumstances of a few deaths."
Yesterday's recall was announced just as the Chicago Tribune planned to publish the results of an investigation into the April 2005 death of 9-month-old Liam Johns of Sacramento. The family's attorney, Charles Kelly, said an investigator from the CPSC examined for the first time this week the Aspen 3 in 1 crib in which the child died.
"We take every crib death very seriously . . . but it is critically important for our investigations of crib deaths to be able to analyze what failed with a given crib," CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said.
The first recall of the crib was issued in December 2005 because the wooden mattress support could dislodge and fall, potentially causing babies to become trapped and suffocate. The latest recall involved hardware that allowed the crib's drop side to come off, which could cause an infant to get trapped between the mattress and the rail.
"A crib is supposed to be a safe haven for your child. It's one of the few products designed for you to leave your child unattended in," said Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America. "This recall raises questions about the adequacy of the previous recalls."
Some critics of the CPSC said the recall is evidence that the agency is too weak and doesn't have the authority to compel recalcitrant companies to report and act on dangerous products. By law, companies get to choose whether to repair, replace or repurchase recalled products, and the CPSC must make sure the remedy makes the product safe, said agency spokesman Wolfson.
In the case of Simplicity's three crib recalls, the company chose not to take the cribs back from consumers. Instead, it offered a "retrofit kit" in the first recall, new assembly instructions in the second and a free repair in the third.
"Why did it take three deaths to get to this recall? It should have taken one injury or, God forbid, one death to take it off the market," said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids In Danger, a Chicago child safety advocacy group.
Simplicity President Ken Waldman said the company weighed different options and that the decision was not a financial one. "No cost is too great for Simplicity," he said. "We searched out the best remedy, and we determined it was to send out new hardware."
The CPSC said it is also investigating the death of a 1-year-old in a Simplicity crib with the newer hardware. While that investigation moves forward, the agency is warning owners of Simplicity cribs to make sure the drop rails are properly installed.
Liam Johns died of asphyxiation in April 2005 after the drop rail came off of his crib and his feet got caught in the gap between the mattress and the rail, according to Kelly, the Johns family attorney.
Simplicity recalled the Aspen 3 in 1 in December 2005 for a different hazard, involving faulty mattress supports. Two months later, the company and the CPSC announced a "renewed search" for the recalled cribs after a 19-month-old in Myrtle Creek, Ore., died when a mattress support failed.
This past June, Simplicity recalled 40,000 Nursery-in-a-Box cribs because the drop sides could be improperly installed and come off. In some cases, the instructions that came with the crib were wrong.
Both the Nursery-in-a-Box and the Aspen 3 in 1 were among the 11 models recalled yesterday. The cribs were sold in department stores, children's stores and big-box retailers from January 1998 through May 2007.
"The recalled cribs pose a very serious danger to toddlers and infants. We highly recommend to parents and caregivers that no child is put to sleep in these cribs until it is fixed," CPSC spokesman Wolfson said.