Agency fails to probe deaths linked to popular baby product

Michelle Bobinski with her son, Tyler Baker, who died at 5 months old.

"It is possible for babies to suffocate against a lot of things," said Moon, with Children's National Medical Center. "I'm not sure why bumper pads would be an exception to that."

Three years ago, Washington University pediatrician Bradley Thach published a report that concluded at least 27 babies' deaths over two decades were attributable to bumper pads.

Wolfson said an outside panel of scientists will review the agency's own assessment of bumper pads but wouldn't say who will sit on the panel.

The children's bedding industry, through its lobbying trade group, has said bumpers are safe and is doing its own study.

No warning for parents

The Tribune reported in December that for years, federal regulators have received reports of babies suffocating against bumpers but have failed to warn parents or investigate all deaths. In response, the agency said it would reopen files on babies' deaths and assess the safety of bumper pads on store shelves.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Tribune requested from the agency all infant death files where bumper pads were mentioned. After 3 1/2 months, the agency turned over 42 of 52 cases since 1990. Officials provided one- or two-sentence summaries for the missing files, which they said are still in archives.

The Tribune found 17 cases in which the files contained few details on how the child died, yet the agency failed to ask for further information that could explain what happened. Some deaths are documented only by a death certificate or a brief report from a medical examiner.

Wolfson said some cases that weren't investigated came to the agency's attention years after the tragedies occurred, making it difficult to re-create death scenes, interview parents and analyze products.

The agency relies in part on medical examiners and coroners to alert it to product-related deaths. But the process is voluntary, and many officials don't participate. As a result, the agency buys death certificates from states to try to find relevant cases. Wolfson said the time delay in getting death certificates can make investigations a challenge.

But it is still possible.

By requesting police and medical examiners' reports as well as talking with families and officials, the Tribune could determine that five of the 17 deaths were linked to bumper pads, although other factors were sometimes also present.

A few deaths did not turn out to involve bumpers, or there wasn't enough information available to determine what happened. Federal authorities, however, would likely have greater access to information.

The newspaper was unable to follow up on nine deaths because the agency provided only short summaries of each case and would not release the public documents it has on file. The brief descriptions of each death, however, mention the child's face being against a bumper pad or the child being wedged between a bumper and something else.

Madison Morr's death in Michigan was among those not investigated by federal officials. Records show that the baby was put to sleep on her back with a wedge placed to one side of her, presumably to prevent her from rolling over.

During her nap, the baby rolled away from the wedge, flipped onto her stomach and became trapped with her face in the bumper, the medical examiner found.

In 2003, Alexis Ferguson, 2 months old, was found dead in her crib with her face in a bumper pad, according to the Cass County coroner's office in Indiana. That same year, Jacent Jackson, of Detroit, was found with his face buried in a bumper pad. The 2-month-old baby's nose and mouth were completely blocked, according to a medical examiner's report.

Pat Tackitt, a pediatric mortality investigator, said Jacent had scooted to the top of his crib after being put to sleep on his stomach. The safety agency has discounted deaths of babies put to sleep on their stomachs because that position is considered a risk factor for sudden infant death syndrome, but it's unclear if officials classified Jacent's death that way.

'It needs attention'

Experts agree that thorough death-scene investigations are critical to determine how someone died. But the quality and consistency of investigations vary.