"Product recall" and "children"--a word association guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of every parent. Add "millions" and you can make that paralytic fear. So Tuesday's announcement of a recall on almost 10 million playpens wasn't a happy start to the holidays.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which announced the recall, a certain type of playpen has contributed to the death of eight toddlers during the last 15 years; in the most recent death, loose clothing had snagged on a protruding rivet, causing the child to choke.
No one likes to contemplate such tragedy, but this news seemed even more disturbing because of the ubiquitous nature of the offending product, and its image as a haven, not a threat. What could be more benign than a playpen?
So what should parents do now?
Fortunately, the problem is easily identifiable. The playpens--or play yards, as they are called by some manufacturers--affected by the recall are not the smaller models, often called portable cribs, that fill most children's stores now.
The defective playpens--manufactured anywhere from 38 years to six months ago--are mesh models and larger and more stationary than portable.
The problem--protruding rivets on which a child's clothing can catch--is very obvious. These rivets, which look like nuts and bolts but cannot be removed, stick up one-quarter to one-half an inch from the top rails of the playpens.
Nychelle Fleming, of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, advises parents to simply check for these rivets.
"You can't miss them," she says.
If your playpen has these rivets, call (800) 794-4115. An automated voice-mail system offers you a menu of manufacturers--Bilt Right, Evenflo, Gerry, Graco, Kolcraft/Playskool, Pride Trimble and Strollee--each of which will have recorded instructions, or another number to call. (Only two, Evenflo and Kolcraft/Playskool offer instructions in Spanish.)
More than 16,000 people have called the main 800 number thus far, and each manufacturer has had plenty of additional calls. Sales people at several area children's stores said no one had been calling them in response to the recall.
Each manufacturer is handling the recall differently. Kolcraft, Evenflo and Gerry will supply easily installed repair kits. Strollee, which has gone out of business, recommends destroying the play yard. Graco and Pride Trimble (which has also gone out of business) are offering $20 and $15 refunds upon "proof of destruction"--consumers must send in a section of the mesh.
"We no longer manufacture these models," Carrie Butler of Graco says. "These would be items that have been passed on, that are in basements and attics. So we are encouraging people to check and make sure they don't pass them on or sell them in yard sales."
Fleming commends the manufacturers for their prompt cooperation with the recall, which came about after the 1997 death of a toddler caused the commission to re-evaluate seven deaths that they had previously attributed to pacifier cords.
"We realized that the cords had, in fact, gotten caught on these protruding rivets," says Fleming, "and so the playpens themselves were a problem."
The ban on pacifier cords is more than 20 years old, but Fleming reiterates that parents should never attach a pacifier, or anything else, to a child by looping something around the child's neck.
This may seem obvious advice, but parents, often rushed, riled and otherwise distracted, need all the reminders they can get. And, as with any child-confining item--a swing, an activity saucer, a bouncy seat--a playpen is not a substitute for adult supervision. Don't leave your child out of your line of sight for very long.
And while you're checking and calling, take a minute and think of other playpens your child might use--at the homes of grandparents, friends or caregivers. Inform them of the recall or take the necessary steps yourself--which is so often what parents have to do. Robin Fleck, a Los Angeles mother of a 3-year-old, was getting ready to call about the play yard her child has used as a travel bed. Even though it's in storage, she wanted an answer.
"It doesn't surprise me. You have to really examine stuff yourself and make sure that it's safe," she says.