When it comes to dangers that threaten children, one of the most unimaginable is a piece of furniture toppling and injuring, or even killing, a youngster.
Yet tens of thousands of children in recent years have wound up in emergency rooms and scores have died from such accidents, according to data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
That is prompting CPSC officials, consumer advocates, and furniture and electronics industry executives to explore ways to make dressers, storage cabinets, TVs and other heavy household items more stable. They also want to alert parents about these little-known hazards.
“Furniture was designed for the convenience of adults, child injury was never considered,” explained Dr. Gary Smith, president of the nonprofit Child Injury Prevention Alliance and a pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Parents “simply don’t know that they’ve got this danger lurking.”
Even safety-conscious parents mindful of the potential for tall furniture to tumble can be caught by surprise, with tragic consequences.
For instance, Jenny Horn, a mother and nurse in Kansas City, Mo., secured a tall armoire in her home to keep it from tipping. But she had no inkling that a relatively small item could be a hazard – until 2007, when her 2-year-old son, Charlie, choked to death underneath a 30-inch dresser in his bedroom.
The person taking care of Charlie at the time thought the young child was sleeping, and didn’t hear any loud noise even when the dresser toppled onto him after he apparently climbed on it. “They call it a silent death,” Horn said. Children “are a cushion for the fall of the dresser so you don’t necessarily hear a sound.”
In a similar accident, Kimberly Packard, a physical therapist in Sterling, Mass., lost her 3-year-old daughter, Meghan, in 2004.
“By the time we found her, it was too late,” Packard said, explaining that her husband and Meghan’s twin brother, Ryan, discovered her underneath a dresser.
Like Horn, Packard had taken precautions, securing taller bookcases to a wall, but she also never suspected that smaller pieces of furniture could pose a threat.
“I’m a well-educated woman. I’m well-connected in the world of safety,” said Packard, who teaches CPR and childbirth classes. “And I didn’t know.”
In 2010, the most recent year for which federal estimates are available, unstable furniture sent about 23,600 people – the highest number since 2006 – to emergency rooms. Most of the injured were less than 10 years old.
Another estimated 20,000 people in 2010 were hurt by TVs, which experts say are often precariously placed on furniture not designed to support the sets.
The injuries include serious bruising, internal organ injuries and fractures. And from 2000 through 2010, the CPSC received reports of close to 300 deaths, mostly involving children who were crushed, in such accidents.
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Since 2000, the furniture industry has been guided by a succession of voluntary stability standards for dressers and other wardrobe storage units.
The current standard, in effect since in 2009, calls for furniture to remain steady when all drawers are open and when a 50-pound weight is placed at the front of a drawer. That is meant to simulate a child around the age of 5 attempting to climb on furniture.
Chests and dressers also are supposed to have tip restraints that consumers can use to attach the furniture to a wall.
Members of a panel including CPSC and industry officials, along with consumer advocates, are in the early stages of considering whether, and how, to toughen the standard once again.
Some experts, however, question whether a tougher voluntary standard would do much good. One key problem: Some companies simply ignore the guidelines.
Carlton Craig, a product compliance manager at Virginia-based Stanley Furniture Co., said he has seen competitors sell products that would fail the existing stability standard. “Where you get into trouble is with the furniture that is less expensive in some of the big box stores,” he said.
Thomas Lowery, who worked in testing and distribution for the Ethan Allen furniture retail chain for 27 years, agreed that many companies won’t live up to voluntary standards. For some manufacturers, if the rules aren’t mandatory, “they won’t do it,” he said.
What’s more, the ideas currently under consideration would continue to exempt items without drawers that children can climb on, such as tables and bookcases.
Although those items account for many injuries, they aren’t being considered for the possible revised voluntary standard because they are less likely to be involved in fatal accidents, according to Pat Bowling, a vice president with the American Home Furnishings Alliance trade group.
Neither is there any apparent push by consumer advocates or anyone else for the CPSC to impose mandatory government safety rules. Such a measure, aimed at furniture and TV sets, was introduced in Congress in 2005. Although it was supported by groups including the Consumer Federation of America, the bill failed.
One of the rationales given for not seeking a mandatory standard now is that a voluntary standard can be developed and revised more quickly. Scott Wolfson, a CPSC spokesman, added that when immediate action is needed to get faulty furniture out of the marketplace, his agency works with industry to carry out product recalls.
According to the CPSC , there have been nine furniture industry recalls since 1992, covering nearly 1.7 million pieces of potentially wobbly furniture.
Still, a rash of TV and furniture accidents in Illinois prompted U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who represents the state and is the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, to push the CPSC to take further steps. One of his requests was for the CPSC this year to boost efforts to educate the public about the hazards unsecured TV sets can pose to children.
Meanwhile, the CPSC is studying what kinds of TVs tend to be involved in the incidents.
Experts theorize that the increased numbers of TV set-related accidents in recent years stem, both directly and indirectly, from the popularity of big flat-screen TVs. One of the key problems: After families buy new TVs, many put their older, bulkier models on furniture unable to support them.
Even when certain safety initiatives, such as including furniture tip restraints, have been developed, it’s not clear most families take advantage of them. Earlier this year, the American Home Furnishings Alliance conducted a telephone survey of 1,000 U.S. households. It found that only 36 percent of households with children under the age of 6 anchored their TV or furniture to the wall to prevent tip-over accidents.
One possible obstacle is that renters might resist anchoring furniture to avoid disputes with their landlords.
Still, Smith of the nonprofit Child Injury Prevention Alliance said it’s a mistake to blame parents for the accidents. Instead, he said, businesses, consumers and government should work together and tackle it as a public health problem.“This is something we need to focus on and do it quickly,” he said.
In the absence of tougher rules, child safety centers have sprouted around the country at hospitals and elsewhere that work to educate the public about the hazards.
Charlie’s House, for example, which is named after Jenny Horn’s son, is a volunteer organization in Kansas City, Mo., dedicated to child safety. The nonprofit is building a safety demonstration house that parents and caregivers can walk through to learn about common hazards, including tip-over dangers.
For Horn, efforts to improve awareness of the risks can’t come soon enough.“It can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime,” she said.