Child-Safety Efforts Hampered by Weak Laws ; Parents Face Uphill Battle to Get Manufacturers to Take Responsibility for Defective Products

Article excerpt

Families bought $4.9 billion-worth of infant and toddler products last year. They also borrowed items or received hand-me-downs. But finding out which products are unsafe, or have been the subject of government recalls, is difficult.

Now, a parent's task of getting proper information to remedy defective or dangerous products has become even harder. A study shows that many of the manufacturer-hotline numbers listed on the Consumer Product Safety Commission's website often turn out to be dead ends.

The CPSC, which is the federal agency charged with protecting consumers, runs a website and phone line to give people information on products that have been recalled. Each month, dozens of baby products appear on the list. If an item has been cited for safety problems, the manufacturer gives a phone number where consumers can get help, such as a repair kit, or in some cases, where to turn the product in for a replacement.

Recently, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), a nonprofit association of consumer groups, found that 108 of the 595 hot-line numbers on CPSC's list either did not work or did not lead to a successful resolution.

A big concern, according to the CFA, is that manufacturers are under no obligation to staff a hot line and maintain it indefinitely, although many products - cribs, bunk beds, and strollers - have a long product life.

This is the latest in a series of events that has focused attention squarely on child safety and the CPSC's effectiveness.

Marla Felcher, a former professor of marketing at Northwestern University, has documented problems facing the agency in her book, "It's No Accident" (Common Courage Press, 281 pp., $17.95). She had a personal reason for doing the research: The toddler son of two friends died in a faulty portable crib. Ms. Felcher set out to investigate what could have been done to prevent the tragedy.

The result is a meticulously documented examination of the infant-products industry. Felcher uncovered data that showed products are sent to market inadequately tested. According to CPSC statistics, each year these products are involved in the deaths of 87 children under 5 and the injuries of more than 65,000 infants and toddlers.

It's also an industry that is expected to monitor itself by setting voluntary safety standards and reporting problems to the CPSC.

If that sounds a bit like the fox guarding the henhouse, says Felcher, it is. Not all companies report complaints, even though the law requires them to do so in 24 hours, if there is substantial risk of injury to consumers.

A case in point: In May, Cosco, the nation's largest manufacturer of baby products, was fined $1.3 million for failing to report product defects in strollers, cribs, car-seat carriers, and high chairs. …