In August, Mattel Inc. recalled 7.3 million Polly Pocket play sets with small magnets that could come loose and, if swallowed, tear holes in a child's digestive system.
Hearing that, Lisa Davis didn't think twice about removing the toys from her 5-year-old daughter's room and "chucking them in the trash" rather than returning the items for a replacement.
"It's just not worth my time to go through the hassle," Davis said. "It's easier to quietly stick them in the trash when my daughter's not looking."
This year, manufacturers and retailers have issued a steady drumbeat of recalls for unsafe items including dolls, baby cribs, lunchboxes and pet food. But despite widespread media attention, companies often get back just a handful of items.
The challenge for officials is determining whether recall announcements are missing their intended targets. And if consumers are simply ignoring instructions, are they throwing out the recalled products or leaving potentially dangerous things in their homes?
The meager returns have spurred safety officials to launch initiatives aimed at getting harmful products out of the public's hands, including an e-mail program that notifies consumers about recalls. And the House on Tuesday approved a bill -- named after a Chicago toddler who smothered in a portable crib long after its recall -- that would force manufacturers of many children's products to keep track of who buys them.
"We do a very good job of getting dangerous products off store shelves, but our greater challenge is to get dangerous products out of people's homes," said Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Last year, Target Corp. recalled 190,500 Kool Toyz, warning parents that the play sets could contain harmful levels of lead and sharp points that could cut their children. But after issuing news releases and posting in-store recall announcements, the Minneapolis-based retailer reported it had recovered just 766 play sets, or less than 1% of the units included in the recall.
In May, Target recalled 5,000 Anima Bamboo Collection Games, cautioning that the paint on the colorful game pieces could pose a lead hazard. None of the units were returned.
"We agree that product safety is an important issue and believe that the solution to ensure safety and possibly increase recall response lies in the best thinking between manufacturers, retailers and the government," said Target spokeswoman Brie Heath, who did not offer an explanation for the company's low return rate.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission does not release statistics on the number of products returned by consumers. Reports submitted to a House subcommittee last month by 19 national retailers involved in lead-paint recalls revealed that only small percentages of items were being returned. But there is plenty of evidence to show that leaving unsafe products in circulation can be deadly.
Danny Keysar was 16 months old when he died in a portable crib that had been recalled five years earlier.
The boy's parents and caretakers at the child-care center where the accident occurred told officials that they hadn't known about the 1993 recall of Playskool Travel-Lite cribs after three children -- including two from California -- became entrapped and suffocated. After the recall of the cribs, made by Kolcraft Enterprises Inc., at least two other toddlers died.
"It was like a bad dream," said Danny's father, Boaz Keysar.
"We're pretty informed people," said Keysar, 49, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago. "We couldn't believe that this kind of thing would be allowed to happen."
Safety advocates say consumers would be better served if the registration required when they buy a car or truck were extended to other products. That way, they would get a letter when an item was recalled. Vehicle recall response rates are among the highest, at about 72% in recent years, said Eric Bolton, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"The rest of the consumer product system has never set up its own system and hasn't been required to do so," said Joan Claybrook, former head of the national traffic safety board and now president of the Public Citizen safety and consumer rights lobbying group in Washington. "The system itself is defective."
Safety officials rely largely on the media to get out the word, so if a consumer misses the message, "you're out of luck," Claybrook said.
Late Tuesday, a product registration bill was passed by the House on a voice vote. The bill, named the Danny Keysar Child Product Safety Notification Act, would require manufacturers of durable infant or toddler products to provide consumers with a postage-paid product registration form and maintain a record of the contact information of registered consumers. The bill will next be considered by the Senate.