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Effort to Ban Baby Walkers Leads to Debate on Safety : Toddlers: A Seattle doctor has squared off against the baby-products industry in a battle that raises questions about product safety, parental duty and consumer rights. California Legislature has voted to ban devices from child-care centers; governor has yet to act.

August 29, 1993|JAMES L. ENG | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SEATTLE — Doctors at Harborview Medical Center about two years ago began noticing the number of children admitted to the emergency center with injuries related to baby walkers.

At the burn unit, toddlers showed up with scalds from liquids they were able to reach and tip over. Pediatricians saw babies with cuts and broken bones. Neurosurgeons treated babies with severe head injuries.

Doctors compared notes and found that more than 20 children had been admitted to Harborview within a year with walker-related injuries.

So, when yet another toddler who fell down a flight of stairs in a walker showed up at Harborview with a serious brain injury, Dr. Abe Bergman decided: "Enough is enough."

Bergman, director of pediatrics at Harborview and founder of the hospital's Injury Prevention and Research Center, has since been leading a campaign to ban baby walkers nationwide.

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He and other doctors have squared off against the baby-products industry in a battle that has raised questions about product safety, parental duty and consumer rights. Government regulators and parents are caught in the middle.

Many consumer groups and pediatricians say baby walkers--the plastic, wheeled devices that kids sit in and push around with their legs--do nothing for an infant's development and are nothing more than "injury vehicles."

"It's a product created for diversion, but babies would do very well without them," Bergman said. "There would be no loss if they disappeared."

Baby-walker manufacturers say the play seats are an entertaining occupier of children as well as parents and are safe when used under parents' supervision.

"Any product for babies is only as safe as it is used. A baby walker is never meant to be a baby-sitter," said Debbie Albert, spokeswoman for the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Assn. in Marlton, N.J. The national trade association represents more than 250 companies that manufacture or import baby products.

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In California, a bill to ban the walkers from child-care centers is on Gov. Pete Wilson's desk. The measure, sponsored by Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-Burlingame), passed the Assembly by a vote of 43-27, and the Senate, 21-11. Wilson's position is unknown.

The state of Washington's Department of Health banned baby walkers from day-care centers last November, becoming the first state to do so.

But the three-member U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission last spring unanimously rejected a petition to ban baby walkers nationwide as "mechanical hazards." The petition came from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Consumer Federation of America, the National Safe Kids Campaign and Consumers Union.

The commission voted 2-1 to spend $50,000 to study the issue further.

According to commission data, hospital emergency rooms treated about 27,000 children under 15 months old with walker-related injuries in 1991, the last year for which figures were available. The commission staff estimates one child dies each year from baby-walker injuries.

The figures suggest "there may in fact be some potential hazard associated with the use of baby walkers," commission Chairwoman Jacqueline Jones-Smith wrote in recommending that more data be gathered.

Bergman, who in the 1960s helped write the legislation that led to the creation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, called the agency's rejection of the ban "incompetent and inept." He said it's now up to doctors and consumer groups to educate the public about the devices.

"The very nature of the product makes it inherently dangerous. It gives babies mobility sooner than their brains are able to accommodate," Bergman said. "It's like giving a 13-year-old the keys to a car, where the kid can reach the gas and brakes but doesn't have the sense to negotiate in traffic."

Bergman says walkers are associated with more injuries each year than any other baby product, including strollers, highchairs, playpens and cribs.

The product safety commission and the industry say the proportion of severe injuries related to baby walkers is about the same as for other juvenile products.

"We don't sell any product that's not safe," said Dwight Anderson, vice president of marketing for Graco Children's Products of Elverson, Pa., the nation's largest baby-walker manufacturer.

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Baby walkers have been around since Victorian England, but their use in the United States has increased dramatically since the 1940s. About 2 million baby walkers are sold annually in the United States, according to industry figures.

Graco says three out of every four children have used walkers.

Baby walkers don't actually help infants learn to walk faster--something the industry doesn't dispute.

"They've never, ever been put on the market to teach a child how to walk. They're purely for entertainment purposes," said Albert of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Assn.

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