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 makes blinds and shades some of the deadliest products subject to recalls announced by the safety agency in the past 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 a 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.
Wolfson said Wednesday that CPSC staff have been frustrated by the industry's slow pace and have been trying to push the industry to develop safer blinds and shades for several years.
The government warns parents to make sure that rooms where children are have cordless window coverings, and the agency has worked with the industry to initiate recalls and develop voluntary design rules for manufacturers to follow.
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 the recalls didn't amount to much more than a temporary fix, as the industry and government prepare to discuss safer designs.