Children’s deaths prompt agency to propose safety standard for window blinds

Linda Kaiser, president of Parents for Window Blind Safety, poses with a 2002 photograph of her 1-year-old daughter Cheyenne Kaiser on the deck of her home in Barnhart, Missouri Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. Cheyenne was killed in 2002 in an accident involving a window blind. (Sid Hastings/McClatchy)
Linda Kaiser, president of Parents for Window Blind Safety, poses with a 2002 photograph of her 1-year-old daughter Cheyenne Kaiser on the deck of her home in Barnhart, Missouri Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. Cheyenne was killed in 2002 in an accident involving a window blind. (Sid Hastings/McClatchy) McClatchy

For the first time, federal regulators on Wednesday recommended creating a new national safety standard that would make window blind cords inaccessible to children.

In a 171-page document published online, the staff of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says a mandatory federal standard for window blinds is necessary because voluntary efforts by manufacturers have failed to eliminate – or even reduce – the risk of strangulation from window blind cords.

“More can be done to save the lives of young children,” said Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the agency.

Children strangle on window blind cords at a rate of about once a month in the United States, according to data from the commission.

Window-covering manufacturers, retailers and the government have been aware of these grim statistics for decades, and the technology has long existed that would prevent such deaths: A patent for cordless blinds and devices to cover pull cords have been available since 1938, and most retailers today sell “child-safe” cordless products – often for a premium price.

But until now, neither federal regulators nor the industry had moved to prohibit cords on blinds or to enforce a standard that would require cords to be inaccessible to children.

“It is an incredibly significant step,” said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and senior counsel with Consumer Federation of America. “The fact that they’re moving forward at all shows that the status quo is not working.”

Window-covering manufacturers say they’re extremely disappointed by the proposal, which will be put to a vote before the agency’s five commissioners next week.

The manufacturers complain that any ban on cords – either imposed voluntarily by the industry or mandated by the government – would cost consumers money and endanger jobs.

Manufacturers point to the commission’s own data, which shows only six deaths involving window blinds in 2011 and five in 2012, as evidence that fatalities are declining, although Wolfson said those statistics were incomplete because of a lag in receiving death certificates from medical examiners and coroners.

Deaths are down because the industry’s voluntary standards “are the most stringent in the world,” Ralph Vasami, the executive director of the Window Covering Manufacturers Association, said in a statement.

“There is substantial compliance among industry members to the voluntary safety standard, and the industry has a strong track record of cooperating with the CPSC,” Vasami said. “We strongly urge the commissioners to reject the staff’s recommendation.”

A vote in favor of the proposal would kick off the years-long process of federal rule-making, which requires multiple drafts and public comment periods before a mandatory standard can take effect.

Consumer groups said they hoped the process got underway as soon as possible.

“Every day that goes by children are at risk, and I so desperately hope the commission acts soon so another family doesn’t have to deal with the loss of a child,” said Weintraub, of the Consumer Federation of America.

The commission issued its first safety alert for window blinds in 1985, after it received 76 reports of children strangling on cords from 1973 to 1984.

The industry acknowledged the hazard and updated its voluntary standards six times over the next three decades in a bid to make blinds with cords safer and to educate the public about the dangers.

But the rate of deaths and injuries hasn’t declined, according to data the commission released Wednesday.

From 1996 to 2012, at least 184 children under age 8 have strangled on window blind cords and 101 suffered “near-miss” strangulations.

During that same time period, 1,590 children received medical treatment for injuries related to entanglement with window covering cords, the data shows.

The agency says industry’s voluntary standards wouldn’t have prevented more than half the deaths the commission investigated – 57 percent.

The latest revisions to those standards, in 2012, added requirements for durability and performance testing as well as specific installation instructions and warning labels, among other safety measures. But they stopped short of prohibiting cords, despite a strongly worded letter from the then-chairwoman of the commission, Inez Tenenbaum, who urged the industry to adopt a comprehensive standard “that eliminates – not just reduces – the strangulation risks from window coverings.”

Wednesday’s recommendation by the commission staff comes in a response to a petition filed last year by a coalition of consumer groups and child safety advocates. The petition asked the agency to ban window-covering cords when feasible and to require all cords to be inaccessible to children in products that don’t allow for a cordless option.

The petitioners argued that a mandatory standard would make cheaper but safer blinds more widely available in the United States.

The agency’s staff didn’t advise the commissioners to grant the petitioners’ request outright. Its recommendation Wednesday primarily focuses on two types of window coverings _ horizontal and vertical blinds – and two types of cords – pull cords and cords that form loops.

Horizontal and vertical blinds account for 70 percent of window-covering cord incidents. Pull cords are involved in 41 percent of incidents, and looped cords are involved in 28 percent, according to the commission’s data.

The agency’s staff suggested Wednesday that a standard that addressed those two types of window coverings with those two types of cords could prevent 70 percent of strangulation deaths.

The commission put the societal costs associated with window blind deaths and injuries at $110.7 million annually, and estimated that a fix that would prevent all injuries and deaths likely would cost “no more than $0.85 per corded window covering sold.”

The staff said it had asked the Window Covering Manufacturers Association in July to make specific revisions to the voluntary standard in order to address hazards posed by pull cords and loops, but the trade group didn’t provide any timetable or “any specific performance-based changes.”

For Linda Kaiser, the founder of the nonprofit Parents for Window Blind Safety, Wednesday’s recommendation marked the first real breakthrough in 12 years spent campaigning for a ban on accessible cords.

“I’ve been working on this for so long that I just have to pinch myself and say, ‘Is this really happening?’ ” said Kaiser, of St. Louis.

“Just the fact that children are dying on products that comply with the current standard today, it is crucial that the CPSC take action,” she said.

In 2002, Kaiser found her 1-year-old daughter, Cheyenne Rose, in a corner of the crib with her head down in an unnatural position.

“When I touched her body, I could feel she was cool,” Linda said. “I started screaming. My husband pulled her from me and he started screaming.” Kaiser called 911 and started CPR. It was too late.

Kaiser and her husband, Matt, had meticulously baby-proofed their home, putting locks on cabinets, gates in doorways, covers on outlets and tucking the pull cords for window blinds high out of reach. But Cheyenne had strangled on an inner cord of a blind near her crib, something Kaiser didn’t even know was possible.

She’s told the harrowing story hundreds of times since that night – reciting it to other grieving parents, to reporters, to lawmakers and government officials – all in the hope that she could prevent another tragedy.

“It’s something that has become a part of me, just like she’s a part of me,” Kaiser said.

If Cheyenne had lived, she’d be 13 years old now.