WASHINGTON – Shopping for her nursery, Kelly Horvath bought a new window shade because its label advertised its child safety features. She later found her 16-month-old son dead in his crib, the shade’s cord wrapped around his neck, another young victim of what U.S. government records show are some of the deadliest recalled consumer products.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve had to go through in my life,” said Horvath, a stay-at-home mom in Painesville, Ohio, about the death of her son, Josiah, in February 2007. “I just take it second by second, not even day by day.”
The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates about 500 children have strangled on the cords of blinds and shades since the early 1980s, an average of about one child each month. That make blinds and shades some of the deadliest products subject to recalls announced by the safety agency in the last 15 years.
Yet the government has failed to require manufacturers to design safer blinds and shades, relying instead on the industry to develop its own standards.
Despite some redesigns and even recalls, fatality figures in the past decade aren’t much different than in the ’90s, according to government records provided by Linda Kaiser, founder of Parents for Window Blind Safety, an advocacy group. Those records show an average of 14 deaths per year from the mid-1990s to 2000, followed by a moderate decline and then a rise in 2008 to about 17 children strangling on cords from window blinds and shades.
Under federal rules, the CPSC can set mandatory standards for products when an industry’s voluntary standards don’t adequately improve safety, but it hasn’t done so with window coverings. The safety agency has fought perceptions that it’s slow to take action, catching up late to a pattern of high levels of lead found in toys on store shelves and most recently the toxic metal cadmium found in imported jewelry.
Its chairman, Inez Tenenbaum, has urged blind and shade makers to improve their voluntary standards and has threatened federal action, said agency spokesman Scott Wolfson. But Tenenbaum, who has been in office about eight months, has set no deadline for manufacturers to comply.
Wolfson said the agency is first focused on making the next meeting of the industry’s standards committee “as effective as possible.” Officials from the safety agency and the blinds and shades industry are scheduled to discuss revisions to Roman shades and roll-up blind standards next week in a meeting.
Manufacturers don’t want new government rules. The blinds and shades industry says it has improved safety standards for window coverings and organized educational campaigns to warn about potential dangers.
The blind and shade manufacturing industry reported an estimated $2.5 billion in revenue last year, according to industry research firm IBISWorld.
“The voluntary standard route is really the way to go” because the products aren’t dangerous for everyone, said Ralph Vasami, executive director of the Window Covering Manufacturers Association, a group of manufacturers including Hunter Douglas Inc. and Springs Window Fashions. “Here, the potential hazard is focused on a specific age group of children,” he said, adding there is no danger in homes without children.
The government warns parents to make sure that cordless window coverings are in rooms wherever children are, and the agency has worked with the industry to initiate recalls and develop voluntary design rules for manufacturers to follow.
Horvath, the stay-at-home mom in Ohio, sued Wal-Mart, the manufacturer and others and agreed to a high-priced settlement after her son strangled on the shade cord, according to court records.
Jim Onder, a St. Louis lawyer who has represented families against manufacturers and retailers in lawsuits, has argued that these companies are slow to act. Most of his cases have been settled short of trial.
Despite reports of deaths since the 1970s, the industry and the CPSC didn’t agree to eliminate loops at the end of pull cords until the mid-1990s. Roughly five years later, they revised standards to eliminate another problem – cord loops that could form in between blind slats.
More recently, the industry voluntarily recalled more than 50 million Roman shades and roll-up blinds in December – about three years after the CPSC received reports of Roman shades strangling small children. Earlier this week, the agency announced more recalls of roll-up blinds and Roman shades. But these recalls only resulted in a temporarily fix.
Redesigns so far don’t protect children in cases where they could become entangled in the long cords from window coverings and strangle themselves, said Kaiser, the activist.
“They’re going to do the bare minimum, what’s absolutely necessary,” Kaiser said. She founded Parents for Window Blind Safety in 2002 after her 1-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, strangled on the inner cord of a blind.
In one redesign, the industry designed a plastic tension device that attaches a looped cord to the wall or floor, preventing the loose looping that has killed children.
But Navy Chief Petty Officer Phillip Coppedge said the device on his blind broke, and his son, Brandyn, was found hanging on the window covering at their home in Norfolk, Va., in September 2009. Coppedge said the kind of blind that strangled his son has yet to be recalled.
“I wish this on no other person,” Coppedge said. “My feelings about the industry’s response to the hazards are that they need to be held accountable for the products they make.”