We know a lot about how to protect children from injury and death. Car seats help protect them during a crash. Vaccines prevent them from developing polio, meningitis, and a host of other infectious diseases.
We know this because years of careful research and data collection prove it, and based on that information we’ve been able to advise families about ways to protect their children.
As a pediatrician, it’s alarming to me how much the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) knows about two real and present dangers to children — crib bumpers and poisoning by liquid nicotine — and has failed to act on them. Action to make consumer products safer is the very mission of this government agency.
Six months after the CPSC told Fisher Price to recall its Rock ‘n Play Sleeper in April 2019 following more than 70 infant deaths, the commission continues to allow crib bumpers to stay on the market even though we know babies can die if they sleep in a crib with them. Crib bumpers are linked to infant deaths through positional asphyxia: Babies’ faces become obstructed by the bumper and they suffocate.
As early as 2007, Washington University researchers had linked 27 infant deaths to crib bumpers. Reports in 2016 and in 2019 again highlighted the problem. Yet the CPSC’s leading researcher has ignored this research and taken great pains to continue to argue that these products are safe. The issue has become such a controversy in the commission that a former chair of it made the unusual decision to assign another CPSC employee with expertise on the topic to write a separate risk assessment on crib bumpers. That report (see page 82) revealed at least 42 bumper-related deaths over 27 years.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has inconceivably not taken any meaningful action to ban crib bumpers. Yet parents, meanwhile, see them on display at baby stores and use them to line their babies’ cribs, thinking they are safe to use. And babies will continue to die.
This isn’t the only area in which the CPSC’s failure to act has put children at serious risk.
Another threat on the market is liquid nicotine, the kind used to refill certain types of e-cigarettes. As e-cigarette use has become more and more common, these vials are found in a growing number of households across the country.
In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics fought hard to help pass the Child Nicotine Poisoning Prevention Act (S. 142), which requires all liquid nicotine sold for use in refillable e-cigarettes to have child-resistant packaging, including flow restrictors. These help prevent the toxic substance from spilling out. Yet three years after its passage, a USA Today investigation found that an alarming number of liquid nicotine cartridges on store shelves do not have this federally mandated safety packaging. According to the report, unwarranted delays and failures in enforcement by the Consumer Product Safety Commission have allowed products without the required flow restrictors to continue be sold without consequence. Some vape shop owners claimed they never received any formal notification from the commission about the new requirements in the first place.
This inadequate approach to keeping children safe must end.
Congress can step in to help. Federal legislation currently under consideration in Congress, the Safe Cribs Act (H.R. 3170 and S. 1816) would ban crib bumpers nationally. While the CPSC should still be compelled to recall and ban these items, Congress can in the meantime swiftly step in. And as we’ve seen with the commission’s poor enforcement of the Child Nicotine Poisoning Prevention Act, Congress also needs to take a more hands-on role in oversight of the agency, ensuring that such lax approaches to implementation cannot continue.
Parents and pediatricians do the best they can to prevent injuries and illness in children and keep them safe. But we can’t do it alone. It’s time for the Consumer Product Safety Commission to return to its mission and do its part to protect children.
Kyle Yasuda, M.D., is president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.