Did an Investigative Reporter Awaken the CPSC?

By David Michaels

Most media coverage of Friday’s announcement by the Consumer Products Safety Commission and a crib manufacturer that one million cribs were being recalled missed the story behind the story. Stung by an avalanche of bad publicity on its failure to protect children from toys with lead paint or dangerous magnets, the CPSC appeared to be getting ahead of the problem, taking action after the death of (only) two infants.

In fact, the CPSC had known about the risk of infant suffocation posed by these cribs for many months, and the Chicago Tribune had been investigating the agency’s unwillingness to do anything about it. Although the CPSC is denying it (see below), it appears that the agency acted only when it looked like it would be embarrassed in the press yet again.

Tribune reporter Maurice Possley describes the hazard and the CPSC response:

Photographs taken of Liam Johns’ crib by the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office clearly show where it came apart.

The drop rail had detached from its plastic track, creating a gap through which the 9-month-old boy slipped feet-first. Instead of falling to the floor, Liam got his head stuck between the rail and the mattress. Trapped in a hanging position, the boy asphyxiated.

Liam’s April 2005 death prompted an investigation by a federal watchdog agency and a family lawsuit against the crib’s manufacturer, Simplicity Inc.

But the company and the Consumer Product Safety Commission didn’t warn parents across the country about the potentially fatal flaw in Simplicity cribs–not after Liam suffocated, not after more complaints about the crib rails and not after two more infants died.

Once the Tribune began questioning the company and the agency this month, a massive recall of Simplicity cribs followed.

Before the Tribune’s investigation began, what had the CPSC done? According to Possley, not much.

Interviews and records show that the federal investigator assigned to Liam’s death failed to inspect the crib in his initial inquiry and didn’t track down the model or manufacturer.

“We get so many cases,” the investigator, Michael Ng, said in an interview this month. “Once I do a report, I send it in and that’s it. I go to the next case. We could spend more time, but we are under the gun. We have to move on.”

Only last week, after inquiries by the Tribune, did Ng return to California to find the crib. It had first been held as evidence by sheriff’s police and later was put in storage by a lawyer retained by the family.

Even with the recall, it remained unclear why it took so long to address the problem. The CPSC often gets bogged down in negotiations with companies over recalls because federal law limits its powers and its ability to disclose details of its investigations into dangerous products.

Nancy Cowles, a child-product safety advocate and executive director of Kids In Danger, called for congressional hearings to look into the delay. “Was it because the CPSC has no power and the company was able to stall?” she asked.

When first presented with the Tribune findings this month, Julie Vallese, spokeswoman for the CPSC, said the agency could not comment about Simplicity. “We have more than one investigation open, and that’s why I can’t answer any questions,” she said.

Once the Tribune ran the story, some media outlets, like ABC News, reported on the newspaper’s central role in making this recall happen.

“The CPSC didn’t even pick up the crib until after I told them about it,” said Tribune reporter Maurice Possley. “A kid died in April of ’05, and a kid dies in November of 2006, and you’re the parents of a kid who dies in February of ’07, and you know that something could have been done about it? Boy, I’d be really, really angry.”

According to the ABC news story, the “CPSC flatly denied the recall had anything to do with the Chicago Tribune report.”

In a statement provided to ABC News, a CPSC spokesperson said, “In the last 18 months, we have conducted two recalls with this company,” and “we are now appreciating the scope of the issue and the complexity of additional failures.”

I am sure it is not a coincidence that the CPSC and Simplicity announced the recall two days before the Tribune story ran. I hope that the same congressional committees that heard testimony last week about the CPSC’s failure to regulate lead-contaminated toys will inquire whether the agency’s recall was triggered by its need to protect its reputation rather than its desire to protect infants.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.