Defective: Federal database of consumer product complaints leaves out deaths, injuries the government and manufacturers know about

InvestigateTV compared product recalls with complaint database, finding only a fraction of incidents appear
Years after a federal consumer product safety law change, advocates say more needs to be done. Reporter: Lee Zurik & Photojournalist: Owen Hornstein
Published: Jan. 23, 2023 at 11:45 AM AKST
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CHICAGO, Illinois (InvestigateTV) - No one can say how many lives Danny Keysar has saved.

His death in 1998 fundamentally changed operations at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, or the CPSC, and the way baby products are made.

“He was adorable. Had a beautiful smile. He would flirt all the time…We would be in a restaurant, and he’d flirt with the people around. They’d come up and say what a lovely child you have,” said his mother, Linda Ginzel. “He had a really good temperament, you know, really easygoing.”

Ginzel relishes the opportunity boast about her boy.

“He was just had a great, great disposition. Great temperament. I don’t know, you know, much else because . . . we don’t know what he would have, who he would have become,” she said.

Danny was just 17 months old when a portable crib that had been recalled years earlier collapsed around his neck and trapped him. He was pronounced dead at a hospital later that day.

Because of Danny, Congress enacted new rules for recalls, new mandatory safety standards for infant and toddler products, and a new website for consumers to search for defective products on their own.

Yet more than two decades after Danny’s death, children still are dying in unsafe products, recalls remain largely ineffective at ridding homes of dangerous products, and the CPSC website that was supposed to help creates a false sense of security, an InvestigateTV analysis of federal records shows.

“It just seems like the same things just keep happening over and over and over,” Ginzel said. “If you don’t know history, you’re bound to repeat it.”

For decades, the CPSC only had the media to alert the public to recalls

In 1998, the CPSC issued an urgent warning to consumers “stop using previously recalled child products, in particular the Playskool Travel-Lite portable crib,” a press release said.

The deaths of two toddlers within three months of one another in that crib that had been recalled five years earlier prompted that dire announcement. Danny Keysar was one of those children.

On May 12, 1998, Danny’s mother and brother dropped him off at a state-licensed daycare.

Eight days earlier, state inspectors had made a routine visit to the facility and noted that it met all safety standards, Ginzel said.

But the state inspector, the daycare operator and parents who sent their children there were unaware that the portable cribs inside the facility had been recalled.

Since its creation, the CPSC mostly relied on the media – newspapers and television news – to spread the word about product recalls.

But there was no mandate for the media to report and no guarantee that consumers would see or read about a recall when they were published or broadcast.

In 1993, the CPSC and the product maker recalled the Playskool crib because a design flaw allowed it to collapse on children. In 1998, Danny became its 12th victim.

Playskool’s parent company, Hasbro, did not respond to InvestigateTV’s requests for comment.

On that day in May, when Ginzel arrived at the daycare to pick up Danny, she was greeted by police officers who instructed her to go to the hospital.

There, she learned her son had died.

“They told me I could hold him as long as I wanted. . . They had a heat lamp on him,” Ginzel said. “They asked me,’ Did I want to lock of his hair?’ I said, ‘Okay.’ They asked me, ‘Did I want a handprint?’ I said, ‘Okay.’ And then they asked us what we wanted to do with the body.”

Ginzel and her husband Boaz Keysar, both professors at the University of Chicago, left the hospital that day believing their son was the victim of a freak accident.

“It’s the emptiness that’s heavy and that you feel that will never get better,” Ginzel said.

After Danny’s funeral, as the couple sat Shiva for the 7-day Jewish mourning custom, Ginzel and her husband began to see that their son’s death was not an accident but a preventable death.

“The day after we buried our son, we read in the Chicago Tribune that he was the 12th child to die. It was a defective product, that government knew it was defective. The manufacturer knew it was defective,” Ginzel said.

But the daycare didn’t know it was dangerous nor did countless consumers.

“We couldn’t live with that and not do something,” she said.

She and Keysar formed the nonprofit group, Kids in Danger, to advocate for changes to protect children from defective products and set out across the country to change state and federal laws.

Danny’s death exposed fatal flaws in the Consumer Product Safety Act, passed in 1972.

In 2008, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act or Danny’s Law.

Many of the changes enacted in the federal Danny’s Law have had positive impacts.

For example, the CPSC no longer has to rely on the media to blast news of recalls. They are listed on the agency’s website and social media sites. And every child product sold comes with a registration card that, if filled out and mailed, allows manufacturers to notify consumers directly that a product they purchased is defective.

Yet still, recalls continue to go unheard and unheeded, manufacturers continue to hold sway over its federal regulator, and children continue to die in preventable deaths.

A website that is supposed to inform consumers offers false security

For Danny’s parents, increasing transparency about dangerous and defective children’s products has been a core mission.

If parents knew that an infant rocker was tied to deaths, even if it wasn’t recalled, perhaps they’d be swayed not to buy it.

If they knew that putting a baby in DockATot, a now-banned infant sleep product, had led to suffocation deaths, perhaps they wouldn’t have used it.

If they knew that certain strollers could pinch children’s fingers and cause injuries, perhaps they’d look at different options.

“This is about transparency,” Ginzel said.

So, when the CPSC launched the website SaferProducts.gov because of Danny’s Law, it was a giant step towards sunshine. For the first time, consumers could search on their own for recalls and dangerous products.

They also could report their own experiences with a potential defect.

But the website only offers a glimpse of the true dangers, because it doesn’t include any reports made only to the manufacturers.

In the case of the Fisher-Price Rock N’ Play, which today has been tied to about 100 infant deaths, there was only a single report of a fatality before the product was recalled in 2019.

At the time of that initial recall, Fisher-Price reported “about 30″ babies had died. Federal records show the company began receiving fatality reports as early as 2011.

InvestigateTV compared the recall notices of 429 products in which consumers died or were injured or had numerous breakdowns against what was publicly reported on SaferProducts.gov.

Recall notices include the number of incidents tied to each product. The data on SaferProducts.gov comes from consumers, doctors, coroners, medics and others who submit reports to the government.

The CPSC directs consumers to the SaferProducts.gov website and says, “Protect your family and search to see if a product is unsafe before you buy.”

But then, at the bottom of the website, it warns that the “CPSC does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the contents of the Publicly Available Consumer Product Safety Information Database on SaferProducts.gov. particularly with respect to information submitted by people outside of CPSC.”

The 429 household products analyzed by InvestigateTV were linked in recall notices to 62 deaths, nearly 1,600 injuries and more than 23,000 product defects such as toys with small parts breaking off but causing no harm to children.

But if a consumer went looking for incident reports tied to those products before the recall, they may have received false assurances.

For those same products, CPSC’s public data collection reports only 13 deaths, 135 injuries and 96 product breakdowns.

· In June 2021, the CPSC recalled a handheld clothing steamer, noting that 106 consumers had been injured. But there are no reports about the steamer in the incident data.

· In September, the agency recalled Murphy beds after 62 consumers were injured by the impact of the bed coming out of the wall or crushed by it. There aren’t any reports in the incident data.

· In August, the CPSC recalled miter saws because of laceration hazards and noted that more than 570 consumers reported a problem with the tool and nine suffered injuries. The incident data shows only four reports tied to the product.

While SaferProducts.gov offers more information than prior to Danny’s Law, Ginzel said, nothing is enough. Do you see how many children continue to die? Do you see how many products continue to be out there that that we don’t have any, any idea how many dead or injured children there are? But it’s something. It’s more than what we had before.”

Congress’ refusal to act on the gag rule leaves consumers vulnerable to hazardous items

Danny’s story ended with a recall that failed to reach all consumers.

But Ginzel said that Danny’s Law still is not enough to protect consumers and until Congress acts on the “gag rule” needless deaths and injuries will continue.

When considering the 2008 law, Congress refused to repeal Section 6(b), leaving in place a regulatory structure that gives the power to the manufacturers and not their federal watchdog.

Consumer advocates, some members of Congress and at least one CPSC commissioner calls it a “gag rule,” because it prevents the agency from outing a dangerous product until permission is granted from manufacturers.

That special protection written into the original consumer product safety bill in the 1970s came to be because of a blunder at the Federal Trade Commission.

In 1970, the FTC charged that the DuPont Company had made false claims about the effectiveness of its antifreeze, Zerex. The news all but dried up sales of the popular product, E. Marla Felcher documents in her book, It’s No Accident.

The FTC investigated the product for months before determining that the product did indeed work as advertised. By then, the damage was done.

Congress feared putting out notices too early would harm companies if in fact there were no issues with the products.

“The Zerex debacle still fresh in their minds, the CPSC’s congressional architects vowed to make sure the new agency would not have the authority to do to any company what the FTC had done to DuPont,” Felcher wrote. “Section 6(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act was Congress’s backlash against the FTC.”

The first draft of Danny’s Law called for the repeal of Section 6(b). But by the time it was signed into law a decade after his death, that provision, which would have more fully protected consumers, was stripped from the bill.

That provision gives manufacturers the power, for example, to decide when, how and even if a recall will be announced.

“The delay in getting information through the current process, getting CPSC time to cajole companies to do a recall without letting anyone else know that there’s something that matter with the products, is wasted time in which we know children died,” said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger.

Cowles pointed to the Fisher-Price Rock N’ Play as a prime example. The CPSC knew for well over a year that the inclined sleeper was tied to more than a dozen infant deaths yet had to remain silent because of the “gag rule” that gave Fisher-Price control over what was publicly released about its product, CPSC and Congressional records show.

Even after the Rock N’ Play recall in 2019, babies continued to die in the product, federal records show. Earlier this month, the agency re-announced the recall, citing the deaths of eight infants since the product was ordered off the market four years ago.

And the consequences continue to play out.

This spring, Section 6(b) muzzled the CPSC from issuing an immediate warning about a rocker tied to deaths of babies. The agency had to wait three months before the manufacturer would agree to a public warning about the rocker.

“I was heartbroken,” CPSC Commissioner Richard Trumka Jr. told InvestigateTV. “I wanted to tell people the next day. And the gag rule prevented us from doing it.”

The rocker has not been recalled.

Their quest to fully protect children from product dangers continues

Linda Ginzel said that she had hoped that the mission of Kids in Danger would have been fulfilled by now.

“People said to us, you know, ‘Isn’t your mission accomplished with Danny’s Law?’” Ginzel said.

She responded, “‘It’s just another, you know, step in the road.”

The mission will be completed when defective products – especially those made for children - are pulled from the market before they cause harm and when consumers learn about a dangerous item in real time.

“It’s a really, long road. I mean, it’s been 25 years,” Ginzel said.

She said that she and her husband wanted to call their nonprofit Danny’s Foundation, but learned the name already was in use by a nonprofit dedicated to crib safety. That nonprofit ultimately closed because its mission was filled – there now are mandatory safety standards for cribs.

“Danny’s death is a bigger,” she said. “It’s about children’s product safety.”

Last year, federal records show, that more than 2,000 children ages 5 and under died in a product-related incident. It’s unknown how many of those deaths were because of a defect or design flaw.

So, Danny’s mission, Ginzel said, must live on.

How to Check on Products

Consumer investigative reporter Rachel DePompa explains how to check for product complaints and recalls before you buy.

InvestigateTV associate producer Conner Hendricks provided research for this story.