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Ikea, a tipped-over dresser and a toddler’s tragic death

Jackie Collas and her son Curren. (Courtesy of Jackie Collas)

Curren Collas was just a toddler — silly and quick to smile, with a silky blonde mop that swept sideways across his forehead in the style of a teenage pop star.

But he had those soulful blue eyes, his mother Jackie often says. They made him seem older than his two years. And wise, as though he could see right into you.

Jackie Collas never heard anything on the morning of Feb. 25, 2014, she wrote on her blog. It wasn’t until she opened the door to her son’s room that she realized something was wrong. There was the blonde wood dresser she’d bought from Ikea, fallen on its front. And there was Curren trapped between it and the bed, his face purple and his body unbearably still.

While she waited for an ambulance, Collas desperately tried to resuscitate the small boy. After his funeral she would learn that Curren had no vital signs when the paramedics took over. CPR wouldn’t have saved him.

Knowing that, she wishes she had stopped lifesaving efforts that day, she told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“I would have held him a little longer,” she says. “While he was warm.”

What happened to Curren is known as a “tip over” — the term for when an everyday appliance or piece of furniture is knocked over and suddenly transformed into a deadly threat. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a child dies roughly every two weeks due to tip-over incidents. The vast majority of victims are under the age of five.

Curren was one of two children killed last year by a particular piece of furniture — the MALM chest from Ikea, of which there are about 7 million nationwide. Their deaths helped push the Scandinavian chain with outlets across the U.S. to issue a warning Wednesday that their chests and dressers were not safe around children unless anchored to a wall.

In cooperation with the CPSC, Ikea is also giving out free anchoring kits to owners of MALM chests and 20 million other dressers as part of national repair program.

[After 2 deaths, Ikea warns of risks with 27 million dressers]

“A huge breath of relief for me this morning,” Collas wrote on her Facebook page.

The West Chester, Pa., mother told the Inquirer that she had never heard of a tip-over before one happened in her own home. But Curren’s death made her into something of a crusader for stricter child safety standards. She built a blog and a Facebook page for her son on which she shares stories about his death, updates on her family’s life and stories about the hazards of ordinary objects. When the insurance company Nationwide aired a controversial Super Bowl commercial about childhood preventable deaths that featured an image of a toppled TV, Collas called it “bold and shocking and just what we needed to hear.”

In May she also filed a lawsuit against Ikea accusing the company of negligence for failing to provide warnings about tip-overs and instructions on how to prevent them.

An Ikea spokesman told the Philadelphia Daily News that all the company’s products are tested for safety and include a warning in the instruction materials that items can fall over if not secured to a wall.

But IKEA products are far from the only ones that fall over.

Roughly half a million tip-over injuries have been identified by the Consumer Product Safety Commission since 2000, in addition to 430 fatalities. Toppling televisions and television stands caused roughly two-thirds of the deaths, and more than 80 percent of victims were children.

The U.S. Consumer and Product Safety Commission produced this video, which illustrates why parents should "anchor" large pieces of furniture, televisions and appliances to prevent curious children from suffering serious injuries or death. (Video: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission via YouTube)

Children are vulnerable because they’re small, and also because they’re rambunctious. More than half of deaths happen when a kid is climbing on, kicking or tugging at, or playing nearby the object that killed them.

According to the CPSC, when a television, for example, falls from an average size dresser, it can have the force of thousands of pounds. “The impact of a falling TV,” it said to bring home its point, “is like being caught between J.J. Watt and Ndamukong Suh colliding at full speed — 10 times.”

It also appears that tip-over deaths may be on the rise. From only seven in 2000, the number of fatalities spiked to 49 in 2011 — the last year for which reliable data is available, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“Experts say it’s unclear why deaths are rising, but many believe consumers buying flatscreen televisions are putting their old, bulky sets on furniture never intended to carry the weight,” the paper reported.

There are no federal regulations related to furniture stability, according to Scott Wilson of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Industry standards require that televisions and other furniture pass a stability test. Other strategies for tip-over prevention, like the sale of anchoring systems alongside furniture, are voluntary standards established by the American Society for Testing and Materials. Many companies (including Ikea, until this week) say they don’t include anchor kits with their products because the type of system required is different depending on the material of the wall that the product is being secured to.

And while furniture safety kits are fairly cheap and easy to find — Lowes sells them for roughly $10 a box — a recent Consumer Product Safety Commission report noted that few customers went out and got them. A survey of CPSC listserv members — probably a more conscientious bunch than average — found that more than 90 percent hadn’t anchored their TV.

This year the commission rolled out a $400,000 public safety campaign called “anchor it,” aimed at reducing that fraction, but getting consumers to buy their own anchoring kits remains a challenge.

Changing federal regulations may be even more difficult. Former Pennsylvania representative Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) twice introduced bills aimed at getting the CPSC to issue stricter standards for furniture that children might knock into or climb on — neither wound up going anywhere.

Those bills were named for 3-year-old Katie Lambert, who died in 2005 when a dresser in her bedroom, tilted ever-so-slightly forward by tack strip beneath the carpet on which it rested, toppled forward and crushed her.

Katie was killed on impact, police found. But an expert hired by the Lamberts in their lawsuit against Ikea, which manufactured the wardrobe, said that her last moments would likely have been terrifying.

“For a brief instant, Katie Lambert experienced a consuming terror and dread and likely physical pain as this large wardrobe item collapsed upon and enveloped her,” the Lamberts’ expert wrote, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The wardrobe had come with metal brackets to attach it to the wall, which the Lamberts had not used, but they said that the restraints were “woefully inadequate” anyway. The case was ultimately settled out of court.

But it’s rare for families to sue manufacturers after a tip-over incident, according attorney Michael Carr, who represented a family whose son was killed by a dresser from the California company Million Dollar Baby.

“They’re not thinking about a manufacturer in China being responsible,” he told the Inquirer. “They’re thinking about what they didn’t do.”

Jackie Collas, who has three children older than Curren, writes that now everything in her house is secured — T.V., bookshelves, dressers especially.

“I want you to learn from my mistakes,” she says on her blog.

She is haunted by Curren’s absence — the sight of his chair at the table, the smell of his empty bedroom. In the months after his death she sometimes stumbled across his toy cars hidden about the house, reminders of how he used to squirrel them away, she writes.

But her family has a baby once more. Earlier this year Collas announced on Facebook that she’d given birth to a girl.

She was born on Curren’s birthday.

Correction: An initial version of this story incorrectly stated that U.S. law requires furniture and televisions to pass a stability test. That requirement is actually a voluntary industry standard, not a federal regulation.