The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Regulators again struggle with response to crib bumper deaths

Crib bumpers have been linked to infant deaths for years, but federal regulators have yet to take action. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Medical authorities want them banned. A business trade group thinks regulations can make them safe. And caught in between is the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The debate over what to do about padded crib bumpers — which has dragged on for the past eight years — continued Wednesday with a public hearing of medical experts, safety advocates and business officials hoping to influence what the CPSC finally decides to do. A decision is expected to take at least several months.

What makes this fight unusual is that the CPSC itself is split over how to view crib bumpers, panels of fabric that wrap inside a crib and are marketed as products that protect babies.

The agency’s health sciences staff — led by one influential scientist — has repeatedly rejected the medical consensus that padded crib bumpers are dangerous, responsible for the deaths of dozens of infants over more than two decades. The staff’s view for years has undercut any move by the CPSC to ban the product.

Dozens of infant deaths have been tied to a popular baby product. But regulators are too paralyzed to act.

Commissioners voted 4 to 1 in 2016 to issue a statement saying they disagreed with staff and thought bumpers were dangerous. But only two of those commissioners are still at the agency.

And so this familiar debate faced a fresh audience Wednesday.

One of the new CPSC commissioners, Peter Feldman, said he felt something was missing from the day’s discussion of the total number of infants killed by crib bumpers — which ranged from nine to at least 73, numbers that differed depending on the source and were their own source of disagreement.

“What I’m not hearing today is much talk about exposure rates,” Feldman said. “Is that a necessary part of the discussion?”

In agreement was Kelly Mariotti, executive director of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association. Supporters of crib bumpers say the incidence of deaths associated with them appeared to be incredibly low, given that the popular nursery item has been used in millions of cribs for decades.

Two officials from the American Academy of Pediatrics had testified earlier in the day. They were not able to respond directly to Feldman’s question. But what they had said earlier showed how strongly they disagreed with judging the risk of crib bumpers based on how often they kill.

“Their dubious benefit is far outweighed by their clear and present risk,” said Rachel Moon, a pediatrician who studies infant sleep deaths and helped write the pediatric academy’s safe-sleep guidelines. She compared crib bumpers to cigarette smoking.

Most of the officials who spoke at Wednesday’s hearing said the CPSC should ban padded crib bumpers — a product, they said, that caused infant asphyxiation deaths and failed to protect babies from getting hurt by banging their head or entangling a limb. (The criticism was not aimed at thin mesh crib liners or vertical crib liners.)

Fisher-Price invented a popular baby sleeper without medical safety tests and kept it on the market, even as babies died

“Crib bumpers should not be for sale. Full stop,” said James Dickerson, chief scientific officer for Consumer Reports. Dickerson also criticized the agency for taking so long to take action.

It was a rare point of agreement between opposite sides of the crib bumper debate.

Mariotti, too, thought the CPSC was taking too long.

“The failure of the commission to act in a timely fashion is troubling,” she said.

Mariotti and her group, the JPMA, had first asked the CPSC to regulate crib bumpers in 2012. But they were hoping the agency would just adopt the industry’s voluntary safety standard.

The doctors and advocates at the CPSC hearing were pushing for something else: a total ban.