Safety advocates are upset with what they say is the window blind industry's refusal to eliminate exposed cords on window blinds and shades. Those cords strangle about one child each month, according to U.S. regulators.
A fight to make window blinds safer for children is growing more contentious after manufacturers of the common household product have ignored demands from federal regulators to eliminate exposed cords on window blinds and shades.
The manufacturers, who set standards for their own products, are adopting less-stringent rules that safety advocates say won’t reduce injuries or deaths.
“The industry is clinging to the status quo and is refusing to address this very dire safety issue,” said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety with the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America and a member of a task force drafting the new standards. “As frustrating as it has been, it is even more tragic.”
About one child each month strangles to death on cords of a window blind or shade, according to U.S. regulators. Children can get caught in the cords that hold the blinds together or the cords that are used to pull blinds up and down.
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Last summer, safety regulators in the U.S., Canada and Europe told the window covering industry to enact product standards that would eliminate strangulation hazards. Inez Tenenbaum, chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, gave an October deadline, but the task force, which is heavily influenced by the industry, did not meet it.
Many manufacturers say it isn’t feasible to rid window blinds of accessible cords and think it is impractical to eliminate all risk for any kind of product.
“There’s common sense, and then there’s over-regulation,” said Edward Krenik, a lobbyist for the Window Covering Manufacturers Association.
In a statement, Tenenbaum said the proposed standard from the task force “poses too much risk to the safety of children.” If the standard isn’t strengthened, she said the agency could be forced to pass mandatory standards. But doing so could take years.
Safety advocates and regulators want to rid blinds of cords that children can wrap around their necks, including long operational cords used to pull blinds up and down.
More than 200 children in the U.S. have died in the last two decades from being strangled in window cord-related accidents with blinds and shades, according to the federal safety agency. The annual rate has remained steady, the commission said.
The disagreement over blinds safety standards centers on tweaks suggested by the industry that advocates and regulators say don’t eliminate the strangulation hazard.
One example is what is known as tie-down or tension devices. The pieces, which are sometimes made of plastic, fasten to the end of a looped cord that pulls blinds or shades up and down. The device is supposed to be screwed into the wall or windowsill to hold the cord taut. The blinds can then be moved up and down on a sort of pulley system.
In theory, the taut cord reduces the risk that a child can wrap it around his or her neck. But safety advocates and regulators do not think those devices are safe because they break easily and often aren’t installed correctly.
The industry says that under the new standard, tension devices would have to pass durability tests. Also, they can be made so that if they’re not installed correctly, blinds won’t work properly.
Another proposal would require that a warning label on product packaging say: “For child safety, consider cordless alternatives or products with accessible cords.”
But safety advocates say the warning doesn’t explicitly tell parents not to use the products if children are in the home.
“If their standard is so stringent, why do they have to put the warning on products?” said Linda Kaiser, who founded Parents for Window Blind Safety after her 1-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, strangled in her crib in 2002 from getting caught in the inner cord of blinds near her crib.
The Window Covering Safety Council, which is sponsored by the industry, urges parents to use only cordless blinds in young children’s bedrooms.
Some companies do make blinds with inaccessible cords. The blinds move when someone grasps the middle and pushes or pulls up or down. Springs and a pulley system within the product help it work. Other blinds are made so inner cords are shrouded in fabric so they can’t be pulled out by a child.
Although that technology exists for some blinds and shades, others are too large or heavy to be lifted without cords, according to the industry; in other cases, blinds on extremely tall windows can only be raised or lowered with an operational cord. Plus, the industry notes, cordless technology can add to costs.
But Bill O’Connor, president of B&W Window Fashions in Waukegan, Ill., said his company has developed a Roman shade that doesn’t have accessible cords, including a pull cord, and doesn’t cost more to make.
“We can’t be that bright. If it’s a better mousetrap, why isn’t it offered as a standard feature?” he said.
Over the years, the window coverings industry and regulators have tried to educate parents about safety hazards, and companies have tweaked products in hopes of making them safer. In 1994, some pull cords with continuous loops were cut to eliminate the loop. Tassels were added to each cord. But the tassels can get tangled.
Regulators and the industry also have tried recalls. In 2009, millions of Roman shades were recalled after regulators got reports of five deaths and 16 near strangulations in the products over three years. Kids were getting their necks stuck between the exposed inner cord and the fabric on the back of the blind.
But recalls are not noticed by many consumers and don’t always eliminate the strangulation hazard.
In October, 3-year-old Mario “MJ” Williams Jr. died after strangling on a shade in his bedroom. The boy’s 8-year-old twin brothers found him with his chin caught on the inner cord of a Roman shade. MJ had been playing in his bedroom, said his mother, Latoya Collins.
Collins said she and MJ’s father, Mario Williams Sr., had the blinds custom-made after they moved into their new house in Bonaire, Ga., in March 2009.
Collins said she didn’t know Roman shades were part of a recall and had never heard that blinds could be dangerous.
“I would have went and got cordless blinds for his room,” she said. “I never could imagine that a kid could get tangled up in a blind and pass away.”
In the coming months, the window covering industry will continue trying to pass the less-stringent safety standards, which are voluntary for the industry. Regulators and safety groups are often part of the process and give suggestions, but the industry usually has the final say and more input.
In rare cases, government regulators step in and require mandatory standards, which the safety commission’s Tenenbaum has said she would consider.
That process can take years, however, because regulators are required to do an extensive cost-benefit analysis of any standard. To issue mandatory safety requirements, regulators have to prove that the voluntary ones won’t cut the risk of injury or that most manufacturers aren’t following them anyway.
A mandatory standard also might not get approval from the full commission, which is down to four commissioners after the retirement of a fifth. The commissioners would be deadlocked if they voted along party lines, which they often do.
Earlier this year Sen. Dick Durbin tried to force the industry to eliminate the strangulation hazard from blinds by adding language to a pending appropriations bill that would allow regulators to establish mandatory standards.
That provision and others affecting policy were recently dropped, however, so the bill focuses only on spending.
Safety advocates who were asked to participate in the standard-setting process are upset with what they say is the industry’s refusal to make changes. Donald Mays, one of the advocates and senior director of product safety planning at Consumers Union, said he plans to ask for an audit of the entire process.
“To me it is a lot of lip service saying they are making blinds safer,” he said.