Baby beware: Four child-product hazards

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If parents have a superpower, it’s the ability to see disaster for their children at every turn, to envision every situation’s worst-case scenario. But even the most anxious moms and dads never suspect the strollers, car seats and cribs they buy could pose a danger. That is what makes recalls of baby products like the Bumbo Seat so unnerving.

About 4 million Bumbo Baby Seats — a $30 molded chair that helps babies sit upright before they are able to on their own — were recalled earlier this week for risk of serious injuries to infants that fall or maneuver out of them, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The agency and manufacturer Bumbo International said it was aware of 84 injuries, including 21 skull fractures. Affected consumers can order a free restraint to repair the seats and should stop using the product until it is installed, says Kim Dulic, a spokeswoman for the CPSC. It’s not the first time reports have surfaced about infants falling out of Bumbo seats. In 2007, the company voluntarily recalled 1 million seats to add warnings on them against use on elevated surfaces. (At the time, the government had received 28 reports of children falling out of seats that had been placed on tables.)

Bumbo says seats currently available for sale already include the restraint, as well as stronger warning stickers against using the seat on raised surfaces or without adult supervision. “We’re committed to ensuring the safety of all children who use the seat,” a spokesman says.

As popular as Bumbo seats are, the injuries are barely a footnote when it comes to injuries linked to baby products. During 2010, 81,700 children under age 5 received emergency-room treatment as a result of a nursery-product injury, according to the latest data from the CPSC. That’s up 5.6 percent from 2009. Another 89,200 children in that age group were in the ER for toy-related injuries, down 1.5 percent from the previous year.

Although those numbers are unlikely ever to be low enough for parents, consumer advocates say evolving government standards are helping to diminish the number of injuries among young children. “There have been huge strides made,” says Rachel Weintraub, the director of product safety for the Consumer Federation of America. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 required that toys and infant products pass a set of mandatory standards before they are sold. The rule led to new guidelines for cribs, play yards, bath seats and other infant products. “Our crib standards are now the strongest in the world,” says Dulic.

But there’s still plenty of reason for parents to exercise caution. Innovative products like the Bumbo that don’t fit neatly into one product category (say, strollers or infant carriers) don’t have federal or industry safety standards to test against, says Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, a safety-focused nonprofit. Even in big product categories that have safety standards, it can take months, even years, for enough injuries to occur to trigger a recall. Plus, just 20 percent of recalled products typically make it back to the manufacturer, so hand-me-downs or yard-sale fare could well include recalled products.

Experts suggest parents use the CPSC’s app to check for recalls before buying a secondhand infant product and visit SaferProducts.gov for consumer-reported risks on anything new. Once the product is home, register it with the manufacturer. “Consumers need to know when a product they own has been recalled, and this is the best way to do that,” says Weintraub.

Experts say parents should exercise special caution when purchasing these four types of baby products:

Cribs

From 2007 through June 2011, the CPSC recalled 11 million dangerous cribs. “We noticed a pattern of defects where the drop side of the cribs was partially detaching,” Dulic says. The sliding side of the crib — designed to make it easier for parents to reach inside — created a gap between the crib and mattress into which an infant could fall and be injured or even suffocate. The government tied such cribs to the deaths of 32 infants as far back as 2000, and in 2010 alone, the cribs sent 14,500 children under 5 to the ER.

Effective June 2011, drop sides were banned on all cribs sold in the U.S., and new safety standards were enacted, but advocates warn there are still older cribs out there in use that could pop up at flea markets or yard sales. (It’s illegal to sell recalled products, but individual consumers may not be aware of a problem with a particular item.) Consumers aren’t likely to see many new, safer models secondhand for a few years, Dulic says. Right now, the best option is to buy new.

Baby carriers

Baby carriers and car-seat carriers were the top injury-causing products in 2010, sending 16,900 children under 5 to the emergency room, according to the CPSC. And that figure — about 21 percent of all nursery-product injuries — excludes injuries resulting from motor-vehicle accidents. One of the common problems with products that serve as both a car seat and a carrier has been handles that break. Graco voluntarily recalled 4 million of its “200 Century” convertible car-seat carriers in 2000 for that reason. The CPSC has also found that softer carriers can pose a suffocation risk. Infantino recalled more than 1 million slings in 2010 after three babies suffocated. Infantino did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Graco declined to comment.

Carriers are another item that experts typically suggest buying new, both to avoid seats that may have been compromised by a previous auto accident and to ensure a more secure installation. New mandatory standards for infant carriers are also in the works, per the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.

Strollers

Nearly 13,000 kids under 5 received emergency-room treatment for a stroller or carriage injury in 2010, and Cowles says it’s not uncommon for parents to be injured by hinges and other features, either. In 2009, Maclaren recalled more than 1 million strollers because of reports of adult and child injuries from hinges where the stroller folds. A dozen children who placed their fingers in the hinges had their fingertips sliced off. A year later, Graco recalled 2 million strollers that had a wide enough gap between the stroller tray and seat bottom that unharnessed children could become stuck. Maclaren did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Graco declined to comment.

Most new models now have hinge covers that prevent fingers from getting caught, and most manufacturers also offer free repair kits to make recalled models safer. Parents typically use strollers for several years, and it’s one of the items of baby gear often reused for younger siblings, so it’s worth checking to see if your older model is eligible for a fix, Cowles says.

Toys

In 2007, a significant year for problem toys, the CPSC recalled 276 products, up 80 percent from the year before. That included 4.2 million sets of Spin Master’s hot holiday toy Aqua Dots, which were found to have a chemical coating that caused seizure-like spasms and shallow comas in several children. Over two months, Mattel also announced three recalls totaling more than 20 million toys, for reasons such as lead content or small, detachable magnets. (The latter could cause severe intestinal damage if a child swallowed two or more, Cowles says.) A spokesman for Spin Master declined to comment, citing the company’s ongoing negligence lawsuit against testing agencies it had hired to approve the safety of Aqua Dots. Mattel did not respond to requests for comment.

Lead limits for toys have since been lowered. “Now we don’t see as many recalls involving toys,” Dulic says. But recalls may still pop up secondhand, so it’s worth checking recall records before buying. Parents should also be on the lookout for counterfeit versions of popular toys, which experts say won’t have undergone safety testing. The fakes are more likely have high levels of lead, too-sharp edges or parts small enough to be a choking hazard. Dulic says shopping at reputable stores is the easiest way to avoid fakes.

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