Confidence in Crib Safety: Are Regulatory Hoops and Delays Putting Babies at Risk?

11/8/2011

Nowhere is safety more important than in children's toys and products. A number of regulatory agencies share responsibility for ensuring that children are not exposed to harmful toxins or dangerous products, but legislative gaps and procedural hoops have delayed needed protections. A new report by Clean and Healthy New York concludes that while some crib mattress manufacturers have made products less toxic, a "significant portion of the crib mattresses in the U.S. market contain one or more chemicals of concern" and may still pose risks to babies.

Toxic Crib Mattresses

The report, The Mattress Matters: Protecting Babies from Toxic Chemicals While They Sleep, found that a majority of mattress models still contain at least one chemical of concern. Furthermore, the amount of disclosure that companies provide on the materials used to make the crib mattresses varies, making it difficult in many cases to know whether the product is safe.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products are often found on mattresses and are usually made using additives called phthalates. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has expressed concern "about phthalates because of their toxicity and the evidence of pervasive human and environmental exposure to these chemicals." The European Union has already acted and is currently phasing out a number of phthalates under its Registration, Evaluation, Authorization & Restriction of Chemical substances (REACH) program.

Based on these hazards, EPA developed a proposed rule in 2010 to add phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA) – found in baby bottles, the lining of food and beverage containers, and hard plastics – and other chemicals to a Chemicals of Concern List under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). This is the first time EPA used its authority under TSCA to create a list of chemicals that "present or may present an unreasonable risk of injury to human health or the environment." While not a substitute for the comprehensive TSCA reform that safety advocates and policymakers are calling for, the proposed rule received praise from public health and environmental organizations. However, the action has been stalled since EPA submitted the proposed rule to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review on May 12, 2010. OIRA has yet to release the rule for public comment after exceeding the authorized 90-day review period by more than a year.

In a Sept. 9 letter to OIRA Administrator Cass Sunstein, Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) asked OIRA to conclude review of the proposed chemicals of concern rule and "allow EPA to propose the rule." The senators urged Sunstein to end the delay, which scientists and public safety advocates have criticized as inexcusable.

Listing phthalates on the chemicals of concern list may not provide the robust regulation needed to fully protect babies from all levels of exposure, but it would provide parents and caregivers with information to help them make safer choices. It could also increase public demand for less toxic products and push more manufacturers to voluntarily avoid using chemicals of concern in crib mattresses. The Mattress Matters report confirmed that many companies have responded to public demand for safer products but found that only a small percentage of manufacturers making "green claims" actually avoid using all of the dangerous chemicals identified in the report.

The Dispute over Crib Bumper Pads

Since the 2008 passage of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has followed its congressional mandate to increase safety standards for children's toys and products, taking a number of actions to improve the safety of baby cribs and sleep products. In September 2010, the CPSC and U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a joint warning against using infant sleep positioners because of the suffocation risk the pose. In June, crib safety standards issued in 2010 became effective, including rules that stop the manufacture and sale of dangerous, traditional drop-side cribs and require more rigorous safety testing. Unfortunately, despite warning cries from physicians and safety groups, the CPSC has yet to regulate or issue official warnings to parents of the dangers of bumper pads that wrap around the sides of cribs.

The American Academy of Pediatrics urged parents not to use bumpers after research conducted in 2007 by pediatrician Bradley Thach concluded that 27 infant deaths were attributed to bumper pads from 1985 to 2005. The city of Chicago banned the sale of crib bumpers in September, and Maryland proposed a similar state-wide ban a few weeks later. The Juvenile Product Manufacturers Association (JPMA), however, says there is not yet sufficient research to develop industry standards for bumpers.

In March, CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum said that the commission is "currently taking a 'fresh look' into the safety of crib bumpers," with "[a]dditional staff reviewing more than 50 deaths in which a bumper is cited in the case file." Tenenbaum cautioned that the lack of evidence of a causal connection between properly used crib bumpers and suffocation, along with outdated information, make the issue especially challenging. However, she did commit to assembling a panel of outside experts to conduct a peer review of the CPSC staff’s analysis. Notably, she said that CPSC’s previous position that there is no scientific link between bumpers and suffocation should not be presented as the commission’s current position until the "fresh look" is completed.

Unfortunately, the warnings about the dangers of crib bumpers came too late for some parents. "If I had heard one negative thing about a bumper, I wouldn't have used one," said Laura Maxwell, whose infant son suffocated after his face became wedged between the mattress and bumper pad. Some parents like Maxwell are demanding that CPSC take greater action. "If [bumpers] were taken off the shelf in 2009, my son would still be here," she said.

Image in teaser by flickr user Holly and Mc, used under a Creative Commons license.