Loose standards for window blinds lead to strangulation risk for children

The O'Bryant family lost, Gavin, 5, to strangulation in a cord for door blinds.
McKenna O'Bryant, 9, holds a photo of Gavin. (Kevin P. Casey for the Chicago Tribune)

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 tension device at Brandyn Coppedge's house broke away from the wall, his parents said. It may have happened as he hung on the cord after climbing up on the couch to look out the window — just seconds before he died.

"They need to somehow fix this so this doesn't happen to any more children," said Brandyn's mother, Karen Coppedge.

Over the years, the window covering industry and regulators have tried to educate parents about the safety hazards, and companies have made tweaks to the products in hopes of making them safer. In 1994, for example, some pull cords with continuous loops were cut to eliminate the loop. Tassels were added to each cord. But the tassels can become tangled.

At the same time, not all loops were eliminated. Companies could provide the tie-down or tension devices to secure loops to a wall or windowsill.

Regulators and the industry also have tried recalls. In 2009, millions of Roman shades were recalled after regulators received reports of five deaths and 16 near-strangulations in the products over a three-year period. Children were getting their necks stuck between the exposed inner cord and the fabric on the back of the blind.

Recalls, however, are not noticed by many consumers and don't always eliminate the strangulation hazard.

In 2010, Tenenbaum formed the task force to eliminate the problem.

"The chairman has never believed that recalls are the long-term solution," said commission spokesman Scott Wolfson. "The solution is improving the standard."

Carol Pollack-Nelson, a safety consultant also on the committee, said the technology and prototypes already exist to eliminate the risk of strangulation. Companies already are making models that are cordless or have the cords enclosed in fabric.

But many homes still have older blinds, and even new blinds have exposed cords.

Less than three months ago, 5-year-old Gavin O'Bryant died when he strangled in the blinds covering French doors that went out to his backyard. Gavin's family had moved into the rental home in Mill Creek, Wash., just three weeks earlier. The tension device for the blinds hadn't been screwed into the door.

Gavin's father, Cyrus, said his son loved superheroes and probably thought he was being like Spiderman as he swung on the cord. Gavin's 15-year-old sister, Mariah, found him hanging from the door when she came in to check on him after doing dishes.

Cyrus O'Bryant, a police officer, said he and his wife, Reshelle, warned their kids constantly about other safety hazards like speeding cars and light sockets. But they didn't know children could strangle in blinds.

"It was one of those things where it didn't even cross our minds," he said.

egabler@tribune.com

Twitter: @egabler