Hidden dangers: Why the government can’t always warn you about potentially dangerous products

When you buy something for your home or family, the assumption is that it’s probably safe. One should test these items and pay special attention to products marketed for children and infants.

But the federal agency that’s supposed to protect American consumers faces major hurdles before it can reveal that a product on the market is causing injuries or even deaths.

It’s a painful reality for Virginia resident Keenan Overton, who adored his firstborn son, Ezra.

“He was very playful, always smiling like me, with curly hair,” Overton said. “He liked to be held. He liked to be noticed. And he was just happy, baby.”

Three days before Christmas 2017, 5-month-old baby Ezra went to sleep for the last time.

“There’s no real way to know until you try to take your baby and get no response,” Overton said.

Little Ezra had suffocated in his prone sleep. It was a moment Overton said he will never forget.

“It was the worst day of my life,” he said. “I broke my arm on the fridge, I destroyed the whole kitchen.

Ezra wasn’t the first infant to die in a Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play Sleeper — and he wouldn’t be the last.

Over the course of a decade, dozens of babies died and hundreds were injured. Some babies’ heads fell forward on the tilted bed, cutting off the air supply. others rolled over and drowned. But neither the company nor the US government issued a warning or recall.

Ezra Overton 5 months
5-month-old Ezra Overton died in 2017 after being placed in a Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play Sleeper.

Courtesy of Keenan Overton

In 2018, Portland, Oregon resident Erica Richter’s 2-week-old daughter Emma died while using a Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play sleeper.

“Unsuspecting consumers think there is oversight, not realizing that our government has to ask companies like Fisher-Price for permission before they do their job and inform the public when a product kills people,” Richter said. “This is not just a problem, it’s a tragedy that costs people their lives.”

At a congressional oversight hearing in June of last year, US Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York called it a “national scandal”. At the time, Fisher-Price and its owner Mattel revealed that the number of child deaths was far higher than the company had initially reported three years earlier.

“We know roughly — I think the number is currently 97, although those numbers change. As we also find that some products were not Fisher-Price or were not sleep-inclined,” Chuck Scothon, Fisher’s senior vice president and general manager – Price and global head of infant and preschool for Mattel, said at the hearing.

For years, what happened to these babies was a deadly secret, kept inside a unkempt office building in a suburb of Washington, DC.

There the US Consumer Product Safety Commission is responsible for overseeing millions of products.

CPSC officials conduct tests and collect complaints, but are often forced to keep quiet about potential risks thanks to a little-known clause added in 1981 to the Consumer Product Safety Act, called Section 6(b).

“There is no other public safety agency that has similar restrictions that 6(b) places on us,” said Alexander Hoehn-Saric, chairman of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Hoehn-Saric, who was appointed head of the CPSC last year, says part of Section 6(b) requires his agency to get a company’s approval before it can release any information about a product to the public — including warnings or recalls . It’s something 6(b) proponents say can protect a company’s reputation from unfounded allegations.

“At the end of the day, good companies will work with us,” Hoehn-Saric said.

But he says some companies aren’t cooperating, even when their product may be dangerous to the public.

The agency’s recourse is to take them to court. It’s a process that can take months or even years.

“Section 6(b) kind of provides that road map for how they can game the system,” Hoehn-Saric said.

It doesn’t work that way in other federal agencies. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can force vehicle recalls for hazards such as defective airbags. The Food and Drug Administration will order potentially contaminated food off store shelves.

“Section 6(b) exists solely to protect companies. Nothing about it offers the consumer any safety protection,” said Nazareth, Pennsylvania resident Sara Thompson, whose 15-week-old son Alexander died while in a Fisher Price. Rock ‘n Play in 2011. In an email to CBS News, Thompson continued, “consumers should have the right and the ability to access ALL incidents reported on products in order to make informed decisions.”

“The fact that the system is set up this way should scare everybody,” Richter said.

“These stories are so heartbreaking. It’s unacceptable,” said U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. He helped introduce the Sunshine Product Safety Act, which would have amended Section 6(b) to remove what he describes as the “gag rule.”

“These are avoidable deaths — preventable injuries,” Schakowsky said. “A decision was made a while ago to stand in the way of actually doing something about it. I think time is up.”

In 2019 — 10 years after Rock ‘n Play hit store shelves, bringing in $200 million in sales — details of the mounting number of deaths and injuries leaked to the public. Only then, according to the congressional investigation, that Fisher-Price agreed to a recall the 4.7 million sleepers that had been sold — allowing the feds to finally alert the public.

In a statement to CBS News, Fisher-Price maintains that the bed “was safe” when used as directed and that it “voluntarily recalled” it and removed it from the market. [Read the full statement below.]

Today, as Keenan Overton and his new fiancee are expecting a baby boy, he says he will always think of Ezra as a hero.

“If he hadn’t fallen victim to that device – who knows? He could still be on the market today and he could still be secretly taking lives because he wasn’t the first to die on it,” he said.

More than a decade after her baby’s death, Sarah Thompson says more transparency is needed.

“I look around and wonder what else I own that could be involved in someone else’s death or injury,” Thompson said. “I have a right to know this information.”

For now, even if there are many complaints, CPSC Chairman Alexander Hoehn-Saric says the agency must have a product’s manufacturer’s cooperation and permission to publicize a dangerous product.

“Because of our statute and the way it operates, if I heard about a product hazard this morning, I wouldn’t be able to tell you about it.”

Each year, hospital records show that tens of thousands of people are killed in the U.S. and 30 million others suffer injuries related to consumer products such as daycare equipment, toys, sports equipment, home furnishings, kitchen tools and more.

But over the past decade, the CPSC has received only a few thousand reports directly from consumers about serious product-related injuries or deaths.

CPSC urges anyone who has seen a hazard to report it at www.saferproducts.gov. Consumer complaints on the website can trigger an investigation that leads to a warning or recall.

Full Fisher-Price Statement

(originally published in 2021, resubmitted to CBS News on October 21, 2022)

The Rock ‘n Play Sleeper was designed and developed after extensive research, medical advice, safety analysis and over a year of testing and revisions. It met or exceeded all applicable regulatory standards. As recently as 2017, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) proposed adopting the voluntary ASTM standard for a 30-degree inclined sleeper as federal law.

After the product was released, various independent medical and other expert analyzes verified that it was safe when used according to its directions and warnings. Two studies confirmed that the Rock ‘n Play Sleeper was as safe or safer than other sleep environments such as cribs and sinks, and one of the studies found that the product had far fewer incidents than SUID rates in cribs, bassinets, and playpens. In addition, we reported significant incidents to the CPSC beyond the requirements of the Consumer Product Safety Act.

Although the facts show that the Rock ‘n Play Sleeper was safe when used according to its directions and warnings, we voluntarily recalled it more than three years ago and have continued to work diligently to remove all recalled products from the market .

We reaffirm our commitment to parents that we will always put their children’s safety first.

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