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Concern Grows Over Window Blind Safety

I’ve written on this topic many times, as it is a real concern to me. Too many infants die needlessly each year because they get strangled by the cords on window shades or blinds. The New York Times ran a lengthy article recently about this danger. Here are the opening paragraphs. You can read more after the break.

On an idyllic August day in 2009, Kathleen Leeson took her children to church, fed them leftover pizza and planned to take them to the park.

But before they left, she decided to put her 2-year-old foster son, Angel, down for a nap. A short time later, her daughter came out of the bedroom and announced that Angel was “sleeping in the window with something around his neck.”

Ms. Leeson, who lives in Montgomery Village, Md., found him lifeless and hanging an inch off the floor, with a window-blind cord wrapped around his neck. “I was screaming his name and shaking him, and the realization hit me, ‘Oh my God. This can’t be happening.’ ”

For the last 25 years or so, manufacturers of window blinds have installed safety features and offered tips to parents to try to minimize the dangers from their products. Even so, children like Angel continue to strangle on the cords with grim regularity, an average of one a month.

Now, prodded by a Missouri mother whose daughter was strangled in a window blind, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has asked manufacturers to devise a way to eliminate the risks from window cords or perhaps face mandatory regulations. Critics of the industry complain that manufacturers have dragged their feet on addressing safety hazards for decades, making minor tweaks or putting the onus on parents to shorten cords or buy tie-down devices. Until recently, regulators have done little to crack down, they say.

In response to the commission’s latest push, the industry, working with a task force of regulators and consumer advocates, says it will come up with a fix by the fall.

But the negotiations have gotten off to a rocky start. Like some other regulatory battles that involve consumer safety, this one comes down to a sobering question: how much should manufacturers, and ultimately consumers, be required to pay to prevent the maiming or death of a child?

Manufacturers of window blinds have offered several fixes that they say would reduce the hazards, but consumer advocates on the task force say they are inadequate and have threatened to quit.

“It was my understanding that we were eliminating the hazard,” said Carol Pollack-Nelson, a safety consultant and member of the task force. “Now they are talking about reducing the hazard. We don’t want reduced strangulation. We want no chance of it.”

Regulators at the Consumer Product Safety Commission also rejected the industry’s proposals, and they urged manufacturers to try again. Inez Tenenbaum, the commission’s chairwoman, emphasized that the commission staff plans to continue negotiating with manufacturers to find a solution.

“We are going to stay at the table,” Ms. Tenenbaum said, adding, “I hope everyone will stay at the table.”

What makes the debate over window blinds so vexing is that a solution has been available for several decades: cordless blinds. But cordless blinds are more difficult to manufacture than corded blinds, and can cost considerably more in stores, by some estimates, twice as much.

In an interview, Ms. Tenenbaum said cordless blinds were part of the solution. But the additional cost, she said, had prompted her to push manufacturers to find cheaper alternatives, too, like retractable cords or cords that are covered and therefore inaccessible to children.

Ralph J. Vasami, executive director of the Window Covering Manufacturers Association, said it was unrealistic to expect the industry to eliminate every possible hazard. Window blinds are not children’s products, he said, nor are they defective. His trade group urges parents of young children to install cordless shades.

“The objective is to minimize the hazard as much as possible,” said Mr. Vasami. “I don’t know if you have it in your power to eliminate every hazard for every product.”

Mr. Vasami argued that the industry’s efforts have had a positive effect, citing the fairly stable rate of strangulation deaths even as the industry has grown. He predicted that the number of deaths would inevitably decline as older products were replaced by those with more safety features. “Just looking at it from a statistical standpoint, there will be a lessening over time,” he said.

There are more than one billion blinds in the United States. Americans buy new shades, on average, every seven years, Mr. Vasami said.

Consumer advocates and attorneys contend that manufacturers have overstated the additional costs of making cordless blinds. But in the vast market for low-end blinds, even an extra dollar or two can cost a manufacturer precious market share, said James G. Onder, a St. Louis lawyer who has represented numerous parents whose children have been injured or killed by blinds.

“Every major manufacturer now has alternative cordless designs,” he said. “When I attack them on it — ‘Hey, you have this alternate design, why not sell the safe blind?’ — they say, ‘We want to sell people what they want.’ ”

He added, “What they are really trying to do is reach a low price point.”

He said manufacturers have repeatedly testified in depositions that the additional cost of making a cordless blind is $1 to $2.

Ms. Tenenbaum’s task force is trying to solve what has been a particularly pernicious household hazard. Though manufacturers have taken steps to minimize the hazard and some parents have followed safety instructions, children have continued to find ways to make a noose out of window-blind cords.

For instance, in Colorado, 4-year-old Mason Holitza pushed a plastic table against a window and pulled the cord around his neck, even though his parents had cut the cord short and attached it to a cleat. Mason survived, with severe rope burns around his neck.

In California, Jessie and Michelle Hawk put up baby gates and installed plug covers and cabinet locks when their triplets were born; they also tied up the cords, out of reach, in their nursery. But 16-month-old Jacob, one of the triplets, managed to reach the inner cord — for raising the slats of the blinds — from his crib and wrap it around his neck, strangling the boy to death.

In Maryland, Ms. Leeson said she had tied the cord to a cleat near the top of the window. But her 4-year-old daughter pulled it down by standing on top of a dollhouse, then put the knotted cord around a stuffed animal’s neck.

“Angel must have gone over and done the same,” Ms. Leeson said.

Regulators have been aware of the hazards of window cord blinds since at least the early 1980s, when a federal study to determine the causes of child strangulation tied 41 deaths to drapery and blind cords. Everything from warnings to discontinuing certain styles like horizontal blinds with pull cords ending in a loop, to other fixes like a breakaway device, have been tried. One manufacturer, Comfortex, produced an ad that highlighted its own solution to the cord problem. “In 1996, only one company offered a real solution to the problem of injuries due to cords,” says the advertisement. “While the industry searched for ways to make cords safer, Comfortex found a way to make shades without cords.”

Linda Kaiser, who lives in suburban St. Louis, said she had never heard of the inner cords in blinds when she put her 1-year-old twins, Cheyenne and Seth, to bed in their cribs in 2002. When she checked on the babies before she went to bed, Cheyenne was dead. The girl was found sitting up in the crib with the inner cord wrapped around her neck.

“I knew to keep pull cords out of the way. I had put them on top of the valence,” said Mrs. Kaiser, who was a dental assistant at the time. “I had no knowledge of inner-cord strangulation.”

Mrs. Kaiser, 38, who delivered her fourth child recently, a girl named Yahna Elisabeth, began a long campaign to educate other parents about the dangers of window-blind cords and to push regulators for tougher standards. She and her husband, Matt, co-founded Parents for Window Blind Safety.

In 2009 her efforts paid off. The safety commission recalled 50 million Roman shades and roll-up blinds after she spent years warning of their dangers. It was one of the largest recalls in history, and some retailers have stopped selling those types of shades altogether.

As for the task force, she said the proposals floated by manufacturers — like tie-down devices for cords — do not always work. Tie-down devices get torn off the wall, leaving a loop that children can get tangled up in, she added.

“I feel like I’m so close,” she said of the task force’s efforts. “This is the best shot we’ve had.”

Ms. Leeson, in Maryland, pursued a separate campaign, finally persuading the Maryland legislature to ban corded blinds in child care facilities and foster homes, which took effect in October. She said fighting for the law “gave her a purpose for getting up each day.” But she added, “Nothing that happens can ever make up for what I lost, even if there was a national law with his name on it.”

Bob Kraft

I am a Dallas, Texas lawyer who has had the privilege of helping thousands of clients since 1971 in the areas of Personal Injury law and Social Security Disability.

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