Defective: Government agency shackled by law often takes years to issue recalls on potentially dangerous products

Parents who’ve lost children in furniture tipovers call for consumer protection reform
Published: Feb. 14, 2022 at 5:18 PM CST
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SNOHOMISH, Wash. (InvestigateTV) – Crystal Ellis easily listed off the names of children who died because a dresser tipped on top of them.

Megan. Charlie. Chance. Curran. Connor. Ted. Maddie. Camden.

They are only but a handful of 193 children that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said have died since 2000 from a clothing-storage unit toppling over. Another 56,000 children were injured but survived.

Ellis knows too well the pain of those grieving families because she is one of them. She lost her son Camden in 2014 when a 30-inch IKEA Malm dresser entrapped him.

“I knew there was somebody out there that was making sure that before it hit the shelves, it was safe,” Ellis said. “And only after my son died, did I realize that that’s an absolute myth.”

Camden Ellis boasts a playful smile. Camden died on Father's Day 2014, five days after he...
Camden Ellis boasts a playful smile. Camden died on Father's Day 2014, five days after he became entrapped in a dresser that tipped over on him.(Family-Provided Photo)

Congress created the CPSC 50 years ago to regulate everyday products Americans use and to pull them from the market if they are defective.

The agency has two tools to address dangerous products: it can issue recalls and it can create mandatory design and safety standards.

But in both situations, there are limitations that leave consumers at risk. Manufacturers are heavily involved in both processes and have key roles in decision making. And both recalls and new safety standards can take years to take effect.

Recalls, consumer advocates say, are largely ineffective because:

  • They don’t happen quickly.
  • They don’t incentive consumers to return or destroy defective products.
  • They don’t hold manufacturers accountable.
  • And they don’t often reach the ears of consumers.

The creation of mandatory standards can take years to implement and are triggered because a class of consumer products such as cribs, mattresses or window blinds poses a danger.

Since 2008, the agency has been writing mandatory standards for infant and juvenile durable products such as bassinets, highchairs, and play yards in the wake of injuries and fatalities from items used by babies. It has yet to complete the list.

“There are obstacles imbedded in the process that make it so incredibly hard for the agency to successfully complete the process,” said Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and general counsel for the Consumer Federation of America. “As an agency that has a number of tools at its disposal . . . it’s not able to use that power as often or as quickly as it should.”

In some cases, the CPSC has been considering mandatory standards for decades, Weintraub said.

In 2017, in wake of the growing number of dresser tipovers, the CPSC began working on a mandatory standard for clothing storage units. At the time, the agency was aware of 167 deaths involving children.

Today, dresser tipovers have claimed 193 children.

“You don’t even know that this system is a problem until you have to encounter it firsthand in the middle of tragedy and grief,” Ellis said.

What consumers don’t know can sometimes harm them

In the wee morning hours of June 10, 2014, Crystal Ellis peeked in on her eldest child.

Camden, just days away from his 2nd birthday, was sleeping peacefully in his toddler bed.

But sometime before breakfast, Camden left his bed, pulled open the second drawer of his dresser and reached in back, presumably to retrieve a piece of clothing at the back. As he did so, the dresser’s top drawer slid open, trapping his head and leaving him unable to yell for help. Then the whole dresser collapsed on top of him.

“He was on life support for five days. And then we had to say goodbye on Father’s Day,” Ellis said.

She had no idea at the time that what happened to Camden wasn’t a freak accident.

Since at least 2006, the agency had been warning about furniture tipovers tallying 65 deaths in the previous five years. “More than 80 percent of these involved young children,” the agency said at the time.

Ellis turned her anguish into advocacy, naively believing that all she had to do was tell her story.

But the laws governing CPSC are tone deaf to pain and suffering; they also tip the balance of power away from the regulator to the regulated industry itself.

The Consumer Product Safety Act requires the agency to negotiate the terms of a recall with the manufacturer. So the CPSC could not issue a recall of the Malm dresser without the cooperation and consent of IKEA.

After receiving reports of two deaths, including Camden’s, the CPSC and IKEA issued a joint warning to consumers in 2015 that they should use the wall anchors that came packaged with the dresser. IKEA also offered free mountings or full refunds to anyone who contacted the company.

“After my son died, you know what? They got an education campaign, ,” Ellis said.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and IKEA post a warning after two children were...
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and IKEA post a warning after two children were killed when a Malm dresser tipped over on them. One was Camden Ellis. The dresser was recalled in 2016 after a third child died.(CPSC)

Warnings to consumers often happen because the manufacturer of a defective product has not consented to a recall.

Since 2000, the CPSC has issued warnings about specific products only a dozen times, according to an InvestigateTV analysis of CPSC press releases. Eight of those warnings were issued in the past two years.

Last month, for example, the CPSC issued a public warning, urging consumers to stop using infant loungers manufactured by Leachco. Two infants had suffocated in the pillow-like loungers – one in 2015 and the other in 2018.

The warning was prompted because “Leachco is refusing to conduct a voluntary recall of the product,” the CPSC said in its press release. CPSC needs the consent and cooperation of manufacturers to recall hazardous products.

In response, Leachco issued a statement saying that warning labels on the product explicitly say that the lounger should not be used for sleep.

“The CPSC has told us it believes that loungers, including the Podster® are not safe because parents and caregivers will ignore the warnings and use them for unsupervised sleep. We disagree because the Podster® is not a sleep product. It is intended for daytime use with awake babies,” the statement said. “The Podster® has been on the market for 12 years and helped parents care for infants when they are not in their crib. With 180,000 sold over 12 years, parents and caregivers have shown that it can be used safely.”

With the Malm dresser, IKEA didn’t consent to a recall until another child died – in 2015.

“I remember sitting with the CPSC the first time and just saying, ‘Why was my son an education campaign?’” she said. “Why were the children before that not important enough? Because when you drag your feet, children die.”

Recalls fail to rid homes of dangerous products

The CPSC and IKEA issued a recall in June 2016 for 8 million Malm dressers and 21 million of other models because they did not meet voluntary standards for safety.

By then, the company was aware of three deaths. Five months later, they revised the recall to announce that a fourth child had died.

According to court documents, “MALM dressers lacked counterbalancing weight on the back and bottom of the dresser, causing the dresser to be top-heavy and front-heavy, so as to render it unstable even when used in an intended and/or foreseeable manner.”

In a statement to InvestigateTV, IKEA called its recall robust and said it provides consumers with free-in-home pickup or wall attachment assistance.

“The recall was supported with an extensive national TV, print and digital advertising campaign and communication continues to this day,” the statement reads. “We have also invested millions of dollars into an effort to raise consumer awareness about the importance of attaching dressers to the wall.

But as more children died, the agency and IKEA re-announced the recall in 2017.

One family, whose child died in a Malm tipover after the first recall, sued IKEA, saying in court records that its recall efforts were ineffective The family received a $46 million verdict.

“IKEA’s insufficient efforts to publicize the recall and to spread word of the hazards associated with its defective and dangerous furniture did not reach most consumers,” the family said in their lawsuit against the company.

In some cases, products are recalled because they pose a fire hazard or don’t meet flammability standards, even though no injuries were reported. In other cases, they are triggered by fatalities.

CPSC didn’t recall the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play until some 30 deaths were reported.

“The way the law is written now, you’re not allowed to know what’s in your home right now is dangerous,” Ellis said. “They could know for years and years and years, as they did with the dressers as they did with the Rock ‘n Play. That it’s dangerous. It’s eminently dangerous.”

Through the recall process, the CPSC and the manufacturer negotiate the terms of the recall such as if consumers receive a full or partial refund, how they return a defective product and how the public will be notified, among other things.

After a recall, federal law requires retailers to immediately pull recalled products from their shelves and makes it illegal for anyone to sell a recall product.

But plenty of Malm dressers – and other recalled products - can be found on secondary marketplaces and at garage sales.

InvestigateTV bought a recalled dresser in December for $50 on a neighborhood social media marketplace in Columbus, Ohio. The stamp on the inside drawer shows that the 3-drawer Malm dresser was made in 2009. The recalled dressers were manufactured between 2002 and 2016.

IKEA told InvestigateTV that “we are committed to working with secondhand platforms to find solutions which discourage the sale of recalled products on the secondhand market.”

In November, InvestigateTV found 13 Rock ‘n Plays that either were for sale or had recently sold on a single online, secondary marketplace.

Fisher-Price did not respond to requests for comment.

“The companies, when they market products to us, spend millions upon millions upon millions of dollars. If they want every person in the world, to know about their product, they’ll spend the money to get there,” Ellis said. “But the day they find out their product is unsafe, they have no idea how to reach people, they have no idea how to tell people about a recall.”

The companies are required to post recalls on their company websites. The CPSC also posts them and often posts on their social media pages. Sometimes a recall receives news coverage.

But overall, it’s up to consumers to do their own research to find recalled products in their households.

Consumer advocates say another peril is that a recalled product may not be currently in use, tucked away in an attic or basement.

In 2014, a brother and sister in Massachusetts suffocated in a 75-year-old cedar chest. The CPSC had recalled the chest in 1996. Even today, those cedar chests are for sale on the secondary market, InvestigateTV found.

Manufacturers are required submit standardized monthly reports to the CPSC that detail how many products were made, how many were returned because of the recall, the number of injuries or deaths reported since the recall, and how the companies’ efforts to reach their buyers.

Last September, InvestigateTV sent a federal Freedom of Information Act request to the CPSC seeking the monthly progress reports for the 29 products that were recalled in December 2020.

As of January, InvestigateTV has received monthly progress reports for only 13 recalled products. Companies have the power to bar their release because federal allows gags the CPSC about releasing information about a named product without manufacturers’ consent.

Those products in which InvestigateTv received reports included tents, children’s clothing, play yards for babies, electric fireplaces, candle holders and more.

Of the more than 372,000 items covered by those 13 recalls, consumers had only returned 6% to the manufacturer.

In the case of a Graco inclined sleeper that was recalled that December, the company reported that 51,700 products had been sold. But as of May, only 2% had been returned, CPSC records show.

“That means in almost every case, the majority of products are either still in use, they’re in somebody’s attic . . . and they didn’t hear about the recall,” said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, a consumer advocacy group based in Chicago.

Only one of the 13 companies reported that it has listed the recall on their social media accounts.

In two other cases, involving the recalls of a ceiling fan and a blowtorch, CPSC said it had no records, meaning the companies likely failed to report on the status of its recall efforts to the agency.

IKEA told InvestigateTV that it has offered remedies – either anchoring kits, refunds and dresser pickups – to 1.78 million Malm customers, leaving about 75% of the items unaccounted for.

“I can safely say that the way that recalls are enforced right now, there’s just there’s just no way to make people aware,” Ellis said.

Most everyday products in American homes lack federal safety standards

Like many facing sudden grief, Ellis kept asking, why did this happen?

When she found others sharing her pain, they vowed they would fight to change the way dressers sold in the U.S. were made. They created a nonprofit organization, Stop Tipovers, and headed to Washington, D.C. to tell their stories.

“When we started the whole process, I just thought, ‘Man, we’re gonna go in there. We’re going to tell our stories, tell them all it’s important. We’re going to get it on the floor and we’re going to pass it into law,’” she said.

Nothing could have been further from reality.

“The whole process is red tape,” she said.

The vast majority of consumer products are made under voluntary standards largely written by the manufacturers themselves – and there’s nothing to force them to adhere to even those standards.

The CPSC intervenes to make mandatory design and safety standards after serious problems are discovered.

When the process is completed, mandatory standards have the force of law and products covered under them cannot be sold in the U.S. if they don’t meet the CPSC specifications.

This year, the CPSC voted to develop a mandatory rule to address furniture tipovers – eight years after Camden Ellis’ death.

The new standard will take effect 30 days after the CPSC approves it. It will require, among other things, that manufacturers test clothing storage units for stability and tag the items with performance and technical data about the items’ stability.

IKEA said it wholly supports the new standards.

For Ellis, it’s a long-awaited victory.

“Camden was just such a bright, bright little star in our lives. I mean, he made me a mom,” Ellis said, who also has two daughters. “He just was fascinated with how the world works. And I always believed that he was going to grow up and be an engineer because he had a habit of taking his toys apart. And like analyzing them and then putting them back together.”

She credits “his little engineering mind which led me to an unofficial PhD in the physics of tipovers.”

It ensured that Camden didn’t die in vain.

“I know that he is helping me,” she said. “I know that he is saying, ‘Mommy. . . use your voice and save others.’”