It might seem as though the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which I used to head, deserves thanks for recalling those sleepers last month. The truth: CPSC has known about this danger for a long time — the first article about it appeared in 2013. CPSC moved only after Consumer Reports covered the story in April.
Is such refusal to act in the face of danger an isolated event? Not at all. Take, for example, the BOB stroller. Britax has marketed it as a stroller for parents who want to run while pushing their child inside. One recent report in The Post paints a different picture — one of a Cleveland mother jogging with her infant in 2016 when suddenly the front wheel fell off. The mother managed to keep the stroller from toppling over, but others weren’t so lucky. CPSC collected at least 200 other incident reports regarding the stroller between 2012 and 2018.
“The crashes were brutal,” The Post reported. “Adults shattered bones. . . . Children smashed their teeth.”
When I was chair of the commission, I would have sought a mandatory recall of strollers such as the BOB. But Republican appointees, including two installed by President Trump, have rejected that idea. Instead, they settled late last year for a “robust educational campaign” along with some replacement parts and would not call the program a recall. Then Britax had to recall one of the replacement parts because it tended to break.
Refusing to call their decision a recall was the wrong approach. And the story doesn’t end there. Consider the chronic problem of furniture tip-overs.
Children climb on dressers. Some tip over. Today, tip-overs injure thousands of children each year and kill one every two weeks. A recall or even a mandatory safety standard could help. The CPSC commissioners know that. In 2017, they voted 4 to 0 to start issuing a mandatory safety standard for dressers.
Why hasn’t that happened? Because current CPSC acting chair Ann Marie Buerkle worries this “would only undermine the progress being achieved through the voluntary standards process.”
Progress? What progress? The deaths continue.
Other numbers speak for themselves: CPSC fined 12 companies for “misconduct” in 2015 and 2016. In the following two years, it fined a paltry five. Public voluntary recalls fell about 13 percent during the same period, The Post reported, adding that in the last year, the number of public recalls “fell to its lowest level in a decade.”
A final note for those who believe in expertise: For decades, the agency has had a children’s product defect team in its Office of Compliance and Field Operations. I trusted those experts. They knew how to spot defects in children’s products and get manufacturers to recall them. CPSC should have expanded the division.
Instead, with a little-noticed memo in September, it announced the abolition of the children’s product defect group. Why? To promote “flexibility” and an “agile workforce.” It will move these experienced, hard-working experts to other issues.
Disgraceful. When it comes to children and children’s products, we cannot ignore what the data show — or how much we need those informed experts to examine the data and the products.
Nobody who spends a lifetime on consumer issues becomes callous toward them. Even decades after heading CPSC, I remember the haunting faces of toddlers injured or killed by industry neglect.
I especially remember one Massachusetts child — Meghan Beck, who was killed by her falling dresser — and her grieving parents, whom I got to know as they attempted to prevent similar deaths. Meghan would have been 18 this year. I can see her smiling face only on the website created in her memory.
We cannot save every child. But the CPSC record over the past two years has been a constant barrage of steps that are too little, too timid and too late. Such small steps can make parents believe their children are safe when they are not. They allow some manufacturers to profit while they neglect safety.
CPSC is a tiny agency. But its mission is vital. It has the tools and people to keep children safe. It has the power to support legislation that might even pass this bitterly divided Congress. It must use all of its tools and every one of its experts.
To do less betrays children and their parents who buy products with names that promise happiness — but spell danger.