Sending a shiver through the summer swimming season, federal safety regulators announced Thursday that they are recalling more than 19 million pool dive sticks sold since 1979.
Six children have impaled themselves on the hard plastic sticks, after cannonballing seat-first onto the toys as they bobbed in shallow water. Four of the youngsters required emergency surgery and hospitalization.
Beyond the recall, which the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said was its second-largest ever, the agency's staff is taking the unusual step of calling for a permanent ban on the sticks.
If agency commissioners approve the ban, it would be illegal to manufacture, import or sell hard-plastic dive sticks.
"It isn't that we had so many injuries, but the ones we had were so severe," commission Chairwoman Ann Brown said. "It's such a hidden hazard. Those dive sticks look so innocent."
The country's 15 largest stick manufacturers and importers, including five based in California, are participating in the recall, commission officials officials said.
The agency announced two other recalls Thursday involving an Evenflo infant carrier and a Hasbro Star Wars toy.
Two types of dive sticks are involved in the recall, one cylinder-shaped, the other shaped like a shark. The brightly hued toys, which cost about $5 at grocery, drug, pool and discount stores, are weighted on one end so that they stand upright when placed in water. Children dive to retrieve them.
One Southland company, Ziffco of Compton, is taking back about 3,000 dive sticks imported from China, but owner Neal Ziff said the product's withdrawal will not cause him much of a financial ripple.
"We've never made that particular product a priority, fortunately enough," Ziff said.
Ziffco and other dive stick sellers said they were cooperating with the recall even though they questioned its necessity.
"From the industry's standpoint, we could have solved the problem with a warning label saying not to use the sticks in less than 24 inches of water," said Lee Tager, president of Sacramento-based Poolmaster Inc., California's largest stick maker.
Poolmaster sells about 100,000 dive sticks a year and is recalling a total of 2 million toys. Most were sold years ago and Tager said he expects that 80% to 90% have already been thrown away.
"Of course, it's tragic whenever children get hurt," he said. "But am I taking the sticks out of my daughter's pool, away from my grandchildren? No."
Cherilyn Paulsen of Silver Spring, Md., wishes she had taken the dive stick away from her daughter. In August 1997, Paulsen's daughter was jumping and playing in an inflatable pool in the family's backyard, celebrating her 6th birthday.
"The next thing I heard was my daughter's blood-curdling scream," Paulsen remembered.
The girl had been impaled on a dive stick brought to the party by a friend. Paulsen's daughter was flown to an area children's hospital, where she underwent two hours of surgery.
"It tears through children's bodies," Paulsen said of the toy. "It looks harmless, but people need to realize how much harm they can do."
The commission rushed to do the stick recall as summer arrived, fearing more cases like Paulsen's.
"In many areas, children aren't going to be playing with dive sticks past September," Brown said. "We had to get this show on the road."
Agency officials notified retailers several weeks ago and said they expected the products to be off store shelves by now.
The safety commission has overseen only one larger enforcement action, recalling 40 million halogen lamps for repair in 1997.
The stick recall dwarfed two other large product callbacks also announced Thursday.
The commission is recalling 327,000 Evenflo Co. Inc. Snugli infant carriers--models 075 and 080--sold since 1996 after receiving 13 reports of babies slipping through the leg openings.
The agency also warned consumers about Star Wars Lightsaber toys made by Hasbro Inc. and sold since the release of "Star Wars Episode One: the Phantom Menace." Hasbro has received more than three dozen reports of the toys' batteries overheating.
It remains rare for the commission to deem a product unsafe enough to warrant banning. In 1995, the agency slapped labels on small toy balls, warning parents that children under 3 could choke on them.
The commission removed certain infant cushions from the market in 1993 and barred sale of metal-tipped lawn darts in 1988. More than 30 deaths were associated with each product before the agency barred them from sale.
Manufacturers of dive sticks say they will bring out softer, more flexible toys next season as a substitute.
Poolmaster is asking consumers who own sticks marked with the company's name to call (800) 854-1492 to arrange to send in the recalled toys in return for a more valuable toy.
Consumers affected by the infant carrier recall should call Evenflo at (800) 398-8636 to receive instruction on how to exchange their model for a new one with smaller leg holes.
Hasbro is offering Lightsaber owners free repair kits with battery protectors. Consumers can call the company at (888) 690-6141 or go to its Web site, www.hasbro.com, to get information.