The Consumer Product Safety Commission said yesterday it has filed a complaint against Johnson & Johnson seeking the recall of 1.6 million stuffed toys, following the deaths of a Temple Hills boy and another infant who were strangled while playing with the toys.
The commission said that it filed the unusual formal complaint with the secretary of the commission because Johnson & Johnson Baby Products Co. Inc. has refused to recall the toys, which the company has distributed since 1979, according to David Schmeltzer, the safety commission's associate executive director for compliance.
The toys, "Soft Triplets," "Piglet Crib Gym" and "Triplets Marching Band," consist of three stuffed figures that are joined at the hands with elastic.
"We think what the CPSC is asking is unnecessary and inappropriate," said Johnson & Johnson spokesman James Murray. "We think we're doing everything that's appropriate to do with a toy that has no inherent defect."
Johnson & Johnson discontinued distributing the toys in March and mailed letters to 700,000 parents last month warning them not to use the toys in cribs. A company spokesman said yesterday that the toys are safe when used properly, and a recall is unnecessary.
The commission recommended, however, that parents remove the toys from cribs and playpens immediately. Schmeltzer said that the commission seldom files formal complaints for a recall because most companies comply with informal requests voluntarily.
"Johnson & Johnson felt the warning was sufficient, and we disagreed," Schmeltzer said. "There are so many of them the toys out there . . . we just don't think the warning is enough."
The commission said that the toys pose a "substantial risk" because children may strangle themselves if they get caught on the toy itself or on the cords that some parents use to string the toys across cribs.
At a news conference yesterday, the commission staff demonstrated with the toys, a crib and a doll, how two infants died while playing with "Soft Triplets" toys.
In October 1984, a 10-month-old Temple Hills baby strangled when he became entangled in strings that had been used to tie the toy to a corner of his crib. In December 1985, a 7-month-old girl in Coronado, Calif., was strangled when she became caught on a "Triplets" toy hanging over her crib.
The toys, which were sold mostly by mail order through magazines for $6.50 each, are part of a series of toys geared to stages of a baby's development, Murray said. When first sold in 1979, the toys included instructions urging parents not to hang them in cribs once the infants are able to sit up or stand, Murray said.
After the first death, Johnson & Johnson enclosed cards in the toy packages, and then sewed labels on the toys, warning parents not to hang them in cribs. After the second death, the company stopped selling the toys, and last month it sent warning letters to direct-mail customers.
Schmeltzer said that the warnings are insufficient because "people will use it as it was designed: as a crib gym."
In addition to last month's warning letters, Murray said that the company will distribute posters to pediatricians' offices and place advertisements in magazines cautioning parents against hanging the toys in cribs.
An administrative law judge must hear arguments from the company and the commission before a recall order can be imposed, Schmeltzer said. He said that the process could take several months.
The commission last filed a complaint seeking recall of a product in July 1984 against several companies that manufactured slatted wooden crib enclosures. The companies later agreed to recall the products, Schmeltzer said.