The lethal hazard to our children consumer protection refuses to fix

Over the last 30 years, more than 300 kids have strangled on window cords. What will it take for the CPSC to act?

Published May 3, 2015 9:00PM (EDT)


This piece originally appeared on FairWarning.

FairWarningAfter fixing a quick snack for her children one day in October 2013, Erin Shero returned to the downstairs playroom of her suburban Chattanooga, Tenn., home. She wanted to check on the youngest of her five kids, Colton, who was two days away from his second birthday.

Thinking he was asleep, Shero reached down to pick up Colton — only to discover a window blind cord wound tightly around his neck. A medical examiner later determined that Colton was killed in less than a minute. “My son died in less time than it takes to pop a bag of popcorn,” Shero said.

American children have been dying that way for decades. As far back as 1981, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission identified window blind cords as a cause of strangulation deaths among children under five.

According to data compiled by the CPSC, at least 332 children, most of them under the age of two, have been fatally strangled by window cords over the last 30 years. Another 165 have been injured, including some who suffered permanent brain damage or quadriplegia requiring lifelong care and therapy, according to the nonprofit group Parents for Window Blind Safety.

The fatalities have included children strangled in the presence of a playmate or sibling, with a parent or caregiver footsteps away. Cords make for a chillingly quick and silent death. Victims are unable to cry out for help — they lose consciousness in 15 seconds, and can be brain dead in a minute or two.

The CPSC began working with industry in the 1980s to develop safety measures to stem the rising toll. Yet officials have scant progress to show for their efforts, with children continuing to die at a rate of almost one a month.

The regulatory stalemate highlights weaknesses in the legal mandate of the CPSC to protect consumers – and shows how the window-covering industry has exploited that regime to keep agency officials at bay.

solution proposed by consumer groups: Ban new blinds with cords if the cords can’t be kept away from children.

Over the years, the industry has staved off agency action with what critics say are a patchwork of voluntary fixes that have provided only an illusion of safety and have in some cases made the cord hazard worse.

Under the law, the CPSC is required to defer to industries that are developing standards voluntarily to fix products that harm consumers. The theory is that the agency has neither the time nor the resources to oversee the vast array of products subject to its jurisdiction – and that manufacturers have a strong incentive to ensure that their products are safe.

“How many years of professional courtesy should the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission extend to the window coverings industry before abandoning the voluntary standards process?” asked Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, a Massachusetts-based research and advocacy firm.

In reality, some industries have used the system to put off regulatory action for years while dangerous products maim and kill. The CPSC has the power to impose mandatory rules when it thinks the voluntary standards are inadequate. Critics say the time for such action with window blinds passed long ago, and that the agency has failed the public by leaving the industry to its own devices.

In an interview with FairWarning, Elliot Kaye, the CPSC’s chairman, acknowledged that the window blind problem is “probably unprecedented,” considering the lengthy delay in regulatory action, the vulnerable population and the continuing deaths.

“I am not going to take the commission off the hook. We could have pushed harder. We own that,” Kaye said. He added that the issue is among his highest priorities, and while he may be open to a new and tougher voluntary standard, the case for a mandatory rule has become compelling. “I would feel like a failure … if we didn’t find a solution,” Kaye said.

In interviews and regulatory filings, industry officials say they have acted responsibly, and that changes in voluntary standards and technological advances have made new window blinds safer than ever. While it introduced cordless blinds in the 1990s, the industry says many types of blinds cannot operate without cords, and that a ban on corded products would force it to drop many popular styles.

Industry officials blame the safety problems largely on consumers who install or maintain their blinds improperly and on parents who don’t do enough to keep their children out of harm’s way. “The best way to bring about this change sooner is through consumer education, not through a mandatory standard that unfairly burdens industry and has a detrimental impact on the needs of numerous consumers,” the Window Covering Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group, said in a filing with the CPSC.

“We have worked very cooperatively with CPSC over the many years,” added Ralph Vasami, the executive director of the WCMA and a group vice president of Kellen Company, a New York-based public relations and association management firm.

New regulations could hurt the industry’s bottom line. Corded blinds account for an estimated 75 percent of the industry’s roughly $2 billion in annual sales in the U.S. The CPSC estimates that making cordless products exclusively could drive up the industry’s manufacturing costs as much as $619 million a year, or about $5.50 per wall covering, although much or all of that added expense could be passed along to consumers.

The industry is dominated in the U.S. by three companies: the Dutch concern Hunter Douglas NV; Springs Window Fashions, based in Middleton, Wis.; and Atlanta-based Newell Rubbermaid.

Critics say the industry is looking out for its own best interests and doing the minimum to protect the public.

“They are not going cordless because they want to protect their profit margins,” said James Onder, a St. Louis lawyer who has filed, and settled, more than 50 lawsuits against the industry in 23 states related to children killed or injured by window blinds. “The industry has made a conscious decision that it is cheaper to pay off a lawsuit than it is to save human lives” by eliminating corded blinds, he said.

Some of the suits have become wrenching ordeals in which grieving mothers and fathers are accused of contributing to the deaths of their children by being negligent parents. WCMA defended a suit in Alaska by asserting that the mother of a child who strangled on window cords would not have heeded better safety warnings on the blinds because she had not childproofed her home and smoked while she was pregnant.

In an Illinois case, an expert witness for Hunter Douglas asserted that the parents of another strangulation victim did not exhibit “safety information seeking behaviors” because they had not read parenting magazines or consulted with their pediatrician about child safety issues.

The WCMA, in a statement to FairWarning, said company lawyers raised those points because “plaintiffs alleged that defendants ‘failed to warn’ them of the potential dangers of window blinds; in depositions, counsel went through the various warnings to which parents had been exposed and whether such warnings had affected the plaintiffs’ behavior.”

Parents have channeled their grief and anger into political action. Linda Kaiser, a St. Louis mom who founded Parents for Window Blind Safety after her daughter Cheyenne was killed in her crib in 2002, has led the charge for safer products. In the absence of federal help, other parents have fought for window blind safety measures in state legislatures. Maryland and Washington State have enacted laws restricting the installation of corded blinds in day care centers.

In California, where at least 75 children have been killed or injured by window blind cords, Assembly Member Susan Talamantes-Eggman, D-Stockton, recently introduced a bill that would prohibit the sale of many types of corded window coverings. It also would require others to have safety devices that make the cords inaccessible. The fatalities in California, more than twice the death toll in any other state, have spanned decades: from a San Rafael child who was strangled in her crib in 1982 to an 18-month-old infant in Yucca Valley who died during a family gathering in 2008, the same year a 16-month-old triplet was killed in his nursery in Tracy.

The window blinds issue, critics say, is emblematic of why the CPSC’s voluntary standard process needs to be reformed. CPSC monitors dozens of industry efforts every year to develop safety standards for products ranging from bassinets and cradles to trampolines and tree stands. But a Government Accountability Office report in 2014 singled out the “prolonged” standard-setting in window blinds as evidence that current laws and regulations may be hurting the agency’s ability to attack new consumer safety risks.

“The process works when industry really wants to solve the problem,” said Pamela Gilbert, a Washington lawyer and former executive director of the CPSC. Gilbert says that has not been the case with window blinds. “The industry has thought from the beginning that this is a parental supervision thing,” she said. Gilbert added that the industry position has been, “We are going to have cords. You have cords in blinds just like you have engines in cars. Parents should keep kids out of roads and out of window blinds. It is not our problem.”

Window cord hazards have been on the radar of the CPSC at least since the agency worked on its 1981 internal study, a “Special Report on Accidental Strangulations of Children under Five.” The investigation identified 41 deaths linked to drapery and blind cords dating to 1973. The report also cited window cords as the second-leading cause of strangulation deaths among children under five, calling it “a particularly insidious hazard.”

Other documents reviewed by FairWarning — after Onder obtained them through litigation and Freedom of Information Act requests — show that, in 1985, a “new project identification” team at CPSC found 35 additional deaths from cords from 1981 through 1984.

The deadly threat posed by window blind cords was a revelation to Shero, the mother in Tennessee. She had baby-proofed the family’s home against other childhood perils such as toxic chemicals, top-heavy furniture and electrical outlets. “It was a totally hidden hazard for me,” she said of the window-blind cords. Until her son, Colton, was killed, she said, “I had never heard of any child dying in that manner.”

Likewise, Chesshuwa Beckett, a high school teacher in Sacramento, Calif., was unaware of the deaths and injuries until her three-year-old daughter Voxie strangled on a cord in 2012 after being put down for an afternoon nap. Beckett figures that her daughter’s fascination with necklaces may have attracted her to the blind cords. “How could they not have done a better job to get this information out?” Beckett asked.

Becky Darko, 31, wasn’t even born when the CPSC started looking into the cord hazard. But she remembers the blood-curdling scream of her husband in 2010 when he found their daughter Daytona, 3, hanging by the neck in the window cords of an upstairs bedroom in their Great Falls, Mont., home. Her husband cut down the child by biting through the cords.

Darko also remembers a manager of their public housing complex telling her that it was “a freak accident” and would not happen again. But this January another toddler strangled to death in window cords in the same complex. “They pretty much put the blame on us … and did not care,” Darko said. “Now I feel like my daughter passed away for no reason.”

An initial solution devised in 1985 by the CPSC and the industry – a series of consumer alerts warning parents to keep cords out of the reach of children and keep furniture away from windows — reflected the Reagan administration’s disdain for government regulation. The industry began putting warning labels on the blinds. But the death toll continued to rise. Twenty-one children were fatally strangled by cords in 1992, versus 12 in 1985, according to Parents for Window Blind Safety.

In the mid-1990s, the industry set some voluntary product safety standards through the WCMA, under pressure from the Clinton Administration, which threatened to enact mandatory rules to make the blinds safe. The focus: eliminating looped pull cords, which form a natural noose and which had been a leading cause of deaths. A joint recall was initiated by the CPSC and the WCMA that covered millions of blinds. Consumers were instructed to cut the looped cords and tie tassels onto each end. The industry agreed to distribute free retrofit kits.

Ann Brown, then chairman of the CPSC, said in a news release that the collaborative effort “epitomizes how government and industry can work together to save lives.”

But the fix failed to stem the tragedies. The cut cords continued to tangle, knot and kill. Children also were strangled by the inner cords that hold together the slats in the blinds as well as by cords on roll-up and other shades.

So the industry revised its standard, over and over again. Between 1994 and 2012, the WCMA invoked the voluntary standards process at least a half-dozen times. Some changes, industry critics concede, saved lives. But the industry refused to banish cords, which consumer groups and increasingly, the CPSC staff, saw as the chief culprit. In some cases, critics argue, manufacturers exacerbated the risk by doing such things as increasing the number of pull cords to accommodate design changes to block sunlight.

“We moved forward slowly because we thought the fix would work. We couldn’t see into the future,” Brown, the former CPSC chairman, said in an interview with FairWarning. In retrospect, Brown says the agency should have eliminated corded blinds.

Along with changes in product design, the industry says a public education program it has sponsored since 1994 has mitigated the risks. The education effort is run by an industry-funded entity known as the Window Covering Safety Council, which like WCMA is operated out of Kellen Company offices in New York, and is headed by a former WCMA chief who is now Kellen’s chairman. The WCSC has a website that declares its mission as “educating Americans about potential window-cord hazards facing young children.” In a regulatory filing, “WCMA Response to Petition for Rulemaking,” the association said that its public education efforts in 2012 “reached an estimated audience of 1.18 billion” through the web and other media channels.

But walk into a big box store, and there’s little if any safety information in the window-covering section – an issue that Vasami says his industry is working on with retailers. To make older and recalled blinds safe, Vasami says, the WCSC distributes more than 100,000 retrofit kits a year. But even at that rate, after 20 years, the total is but a small fraction of the estimated 800 million window coverings installed in American homes. “The education piece is a continuing challenge. You constantly have new young parents and new caregivers coming into the marketplace,” Vasami said. “We need to keep updating the message.”

The hopes of safety advocates were raised in 2010, when regulators from Canada and Europe joined the U.S. in a push for safer blinds, and WCMA announced that it would undertake a “comprehensive revision” of the standard. A 30-person task force was formed to draw up new guidelines; consumer groups were included in the process for the first time. Vasami promised delivery of a draft “by the end of National Window Covering Safety Month in October 2011.”

The industry initially agreed to include in the standard a requirement that pull cords be tested to see whether they were susceptible to wrapping around the necks of small children. That suggested to the consumer groups that the industry was serious about eliminating cords. A WCMA technical committee even conducted its own testing of the cords’ wrap-around potential. But its findings were never disclosed, and the testing requirement was dropped from consideration. The consumer groups quit the process, feeling they had been duped.

The final version of the newly revised standard confirmed their suspicions. Among the highlights: a new warning label and pictograms on the outside of product packaging. Among the omissions: a long-time CPSC staff recommendation to limit the length of accessible operating cords to the neck circumference of a young child, which the industry said was technically impossible.

“It was really a slap in the face to everybody,” said Carol Pollack-Nelson, a safety consultant and former CPSC psychologist who was part of the group seeking more stringent standards. “That is when we realized – and when the commission realized – that nothing was ever going to get done voluntarily.” WCMA later criticized the consumer groups in a filing with the CPSC for “their lack of sincerity in participating in a truly collaborative process.”

The WCMA added, in the statement to FairWarning, that the consumer groups “came to the standard-setting process intent on banning all corded window blinds regardless of whether feasible and less costly alternatives exist.”

Last October, in a move reflecting regulators’ frustration with voluntary standards, the CPSC, led by Kaye, voted unanimously to issue a notice that could lead to a mandatory federal rule. The agency is seeking public comment until June 1 about the merits of a window-covering rule and the dangers cords pose. It likely would take several years, however, for any mandatory rule to go into effect.

In his interview with FairWarning, Kaye said the industry has had more than enough time to develop safe alternatives. He recalls the day in March 2014, when he was nominated by President Obama to lead the agency. That same day news broke of a two-year-old boy in Maryland who died entangled in the cord of a “child safe” window shade — one of four children in a three-week span to be killed by window covering cords. “As a parent … something clicked inside of me,” Kaye said. “I just felt this can’t go on anymore.”

By Rick Schmitt

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Fairwarning Parenting Strangulation Window Blind Cords Window Blinds