After 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 Consumer Product Safety Commission identified window blind cords as a cause of strangling deaths among children under 5.
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Safety commission data shows at least 332 children, most of them under the age of 2, have been fatally strangled by window cords over the last 30 years. An additional 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 safety commission began working with the industry in the 1980s to develop safety measures. 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 standoff highlights weaknesses in the legal mandate of the safety commission to protect consumers — and shows how the window covering industry has exploited that regime to keep agency officials at bay.
Consumer groups have proposed a solution: Ban new blinds with cords if the cords can’t be kept away from children.
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.
“We have worked very cooperatively with CPSC over the many years,” said Ralph Vasami, the executive director of the Window Covering Manufacturers Association and a group vice president of Kellen Co., a New York 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 industry is dominated in the U.S. by three companies: the Dutch concern Hunter Douglas; Springs Window Fashions, based in Middleton, Wis.; and Atlanta-based Newell Rubbermaid.
Under the law, the safety commission 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.
In reality, some industries have used the system to put off regulatory action for years while dangerous products maim and kill. The commission 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 the agency has failed the public by leaving the industry to its own devices.
“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 research and advocacy firm.
In interviews and regulatory filings, industry officials say they have acted responsibly and changes in voluntary standards and technological advances have made new window blinds safer than ever. Though it introduced cordless blinds in the 1990s, the industry says many types of blinds cannot operate without cords and a ban on corded products would force it to drop many popular styles.
Parents have channeled their grief and anger into political action. Linda Kaiser, a St. Louis mother 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.
Last October, in a move reflecting regulators’ frustration with voluntary standards, the safety commission 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 that cords pose. It could take several years, however, for any mandatory rule to go into effect.
FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org) is a nonprofit news organization based in Los Angeles that focuses on public health, safety and environmental issues.