By Patricia Callahan, Tribune reporter
12:38 PM EDT, June 28, 2011
Starting Tuesday, it will be illegal in the U.S. to sell or even donate a crib that fails to meet the toughest crib safety rules in the world.
Newly required safety tests are so stringent that few cribs in American homes — even those that have escaped recall after recall — are sturdy enough to pass them. As a result, federal regulators recommend that families that can afford to do so buy new cribs and destroy their old ones.
"I know times are tough, but I always felt like the price of a crib is minuscule compared to the price of your child's life," said Susan Cirigliano, a mother from New York's Long Island who has pushed for tougher standards after her son Bobby died in a defective crib in 2004. "I was a normal mom raising her kids. Never in a million years would I have thought that could happen to me."
Over the last four years, Tribune investigations have reported that a product supposed to be the safest item in the nursery — the one place where a parent can leave an infant unattended for hours — had become a deathtrap for some babies thanks to bad designs, defective hardware and flimsy parts.
Those stories prompted congressional hearings and recalls, and ultimately led to the new standards.
The new rules address all of the major hazards that have killed infants in recent years, including traditional sides that move up and down. While convenient for parents, those so-called "drop sides" too often broke, creating deadly gaps in which babies got trapped, including Bobby Cirigliano. Drop sides are now forbidden.
The law effectively eliminates the secondhand market for cribs — at least for the near future — because on Tuesday it becomes illegal to sell a crib that fails to meet the new standards. It will likely take more than a year for the new cribs to find their way to garage sales and auction sites as hand-me-downs.
In addition to checking stores that sell new cribs, Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, says his agency will be monitoring eBay, Craigslist and other sites to make sure older cribs are not resold. The agency can assess civil penalties but in practice rarely does so, preferring to work with retailers to remove unsafe products from the marketplace.
Under the new standard, labeling will make it easier to assemble a crib without missing a key step. Many babies died when the sides of their cribs were put on upside down, leaving the beds structurally unsound. The new rules mandate that sides clearly show which way is up or that they function well both ways.
A new battery of tests will better simulate the long life of a crib, finding screws that come loose, mattress supports that separate and slats that break. Each of those hazards can create a deadly gap that babies' bodies can slip through. When their heads get caught, they can hang to death or otherwise suffocate.
The old rules allowed manufacturers to tighten screws between different tests. Under the new rules, the crib has to pass all of the tests without any adjustments along the way. In one test, the crib is pushed repeatedly in eight different directions for a total of 72,000 movements to simulate wear and tear. Separately, a 45-pound weight is dropped on the mattress support 750 times.
"These new cribs are going to be so much better than what's out there in terms of the testing," said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids In Danger, a Chicago-based consumer advocacy nonprofit that has pushed for tougher crib tests for more than a decade.
The biggest challenge for parents will be to verify that the crib they are buying meets the new rules. There is no standard label to distinguish a crib made under the new rules from an older one. Parents should not rely on a simple label that says the crib "meets or exceeds" federal and voluntary standards; millions of cribs recalled for deadly hazards carried such assurances.
Manufacturers are required to provide a certificate to retailers that lists where and when samples of their crib models were tested under the new standards. Although the law does not require retailers to provide those certificates to customers, safety commission spokesman Wolfson says consumers can ask for them if they want documented proof that the cribs meet the new rules.
But Target, Wal-Mart and Babies R Us — among the largest sellers of cribs — told the Tribune they don't plan to provide the certificates in stores. All three chains said the models in their stores and sold on their websites meet the new standards, and all said they have programmed registers to block sales if any older cribs slip through the cracks.
A Target spokeswoman said its customers will have to contact manufacturers for the certificates. A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the chain does not plan to provide them but might devise a system for doing so if enough customers start asking for them.
Customers at Babies R Us and Toys R Us starting Tuesday can request the certificates from the chain's guest services phone line, which will work with the company's safety team to obtain them, a corporate spokeswoman said.
Cowles, of Kids In Danger, recommends that consumers demand proof in writing. "I would not buy a crib if the retailer can't show you proof that it meets that mandatory standard," Cowles said. "I would not take people's word for it."
While stores have known this day was coming for six months, some smaller retailers last week asked federal regulators to give them more time to sell off their inventory of older cribs. In a 3-2 vote, the safety commission denied that request.
On Sunday, Cirigliano and another New York mother whose son died in a crib that broke organized a charity walk on Long Island to draw attention to the new crib rules.
"I know we've saved a lot of lives doing this," Cirigliano said of the new safety standard. "The thing I'm happy about is I'll never know how many. That's the greatest thing in the world not to know."
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