In 2011, there were 20 voluntary recalls of unsafe kids' products. This is almost double the rate we recorded in 2010. Strollers, car seats, highchairs, bikes, clothing and toys were among the products recalled.
Many recalls happen because of poor design. We're calling for mandatory standards and a product-safety review to reduce the number of unsafe goods being sold.
Of 57 nursery products we tested between 2007 and 2011, a staggering 33 percent had faults we consider to be serious (see our table below).
5 out of 9 portable highchairs we tested in 2011 had major safety faults that meant a child could fall out of the chair. 2 out of 8 highchairs tested in 2010 also failed safety tests: one chair toppled sideways and the other fell backwards when weight was applied.
3 strollers we tested in 2010 and 2 in 2009 either had safety faults or failed durability tests. One stroller toppled over when it was parked sideways on a slight slope; rivets on the frame of another stroller became loose during testing.
3 out of 6 portable cots in our 2007 test had a major fault that meant a child's head could be trapped or its clothing snagged, causing strangulation. In 2008, we reported on an incident where a baby had been trapped between the base of a portable cot and the mattress. If the baby's mother hadn't found her in time, the child might have suffocated.
4 out of 6 safety gates and barriers we tested in 2010 failed parts of an "entrapment" test. The gaps between the posts and bars on 3 of the products were capable of trapping a child's arm or leg. The latch on the fourth gate could trap a child's finger. This gate also had sharp edges – and labels on it could be removed and possibly swallowed or inhaled by a child.
There are currently no mandatory safety standards for any of these products. Voluntary standards have been developed for strollers, highchairs and portable cots – and some manufacturers are following them. But there's no organisation that routinely monitors compliance.
Lab tests carried out by Australian consumer organisation Choice also raise doubts about whether consumers can always trust claims that a product complies with a standard. Choice says its tests of many children's products have found there's "no reliable correlation" between product claims and actual compliance with safety standards.
The World Health Organization has fingered nursery products as a common factor in childhood injuries from falls. But data on injuries involving these products aren't routinely collected here. Lax rules also mean companies aren't obliged to report recalls of products that have the potential to cause harm.
Past research by the Injury Prevention Research Unit at the University of Otago shows that hospitalisations from nursery product-related injuries are common. A 1997 study by the unit found hospitalisations were occurring weekly. Some injuries may happen when a safe product is used unsafely but that's not always the case.
Our own files contain reports from members of injuries and "near misses" involving common nursery products. Among them: a highchair that collapsed with a child sitting in it, a stroller with a faulty brake, and another where an aluminium tube sheared in 2. See "Failure rate of kids' products".
Over the last decade, rising recall rates and mounting consumer concern have seen many governments move to beef up regulation for kids' products. However, that hasn't happened here. No new nursery product-safety standards have been introduced since 2001, although some have been amended.
Compared with our closest neighbour, our record is lacklustre. Australia has 28 mandatory standards aimed at protecting babies and young children from potentially unsafe goods (see [our table below]). At last count, we had just 8 standards comparable with the Aussies’.
Deaths and injuries involving portable cots led to the introduction of mandatory standards in Australia in 2009. Minimum safety requirements have also been introduced for strollers and other products such as bunks – neither of which are regulated here.
Australia, along with other countries, has also increased regulation of chemicals and heavy metals in toys. Aussie rules set maximum allowable limits for 8 heavy metals including lead, antimony, cadmium and chromium. Our rules apply only to lead – yet toys with excess levels of antimony and chromium have been found on shop shelves. See "Which products are regulated?".
The Consumer Guarantees Act places a general duty on manufacturers and retailers to make sure the products they sell are safe. But without mandatory standards, it's largely up to the companies themselves to determine what is safe and what isn't.
The Ministry of Consumer Affairs says its philosophy is that voluntary standards provide "a reasonable minimum benchmark for safety requirements" and expects products to comply with "critical" safety requirements of these standards.
It's an approach that puts a huge responsibility on consumers to be well informed about the products they buy. In most cases, it's unrealistic to expect consumers to have detailed knowledge of technical safety specifications. When it comes to hazardous substances – such as heavy metals in toys – there's no easy way to tell whether a product is safe.
Dr Jean Simpson, a child injury researcher at Otago University Injury Prevention Research Unit, says mandatory standards have an important preventive role. She argues that we wouldn't accept unsafe equipment in the workplace – so why should we allow unsafe products into the home where they have the potential to cause injury to young children?
Children's products are often heavily promoted and Dr Simpson says her research suggests parents are very aware of being pressured to buy. "Recognising safe products when faced with an ever-expanding nursery market is beyond what most parents and grandparents can hope to know," she says.
Costs and benefits
Mandatory standards inevitably mean more money will need to be put into product safety. But these costs are likely to be far outweighed by the benefits of removing goods that have the potential to cause injuries.
In its 2010 briefing to the incoming minister, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs acknowledged product safety risks are increasing. It also conceded its approach "is currently skewed towards rapid reaction to incidents, rather than taking a more proactive approach to emerging risks".
The World Health Organization has flagged product changes as among the most effective measures for preventing injuries to children – and avoiding the associated healthcare costs. Mandatory standards also make it much easier to take action against companies which fail to address safety problems.
- Mandatory standards with strong enforcement is the best way to minimise the risk of unsafe goods being sold.
- We're calling for a major review of our product-safety system. We want to see priority given to children's goods.
- We also want to see the adoption of a precautionary approach to product safety – one that aims to prevent injury and illness before they happen.
Report by Jessica Wilson.
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