When 3-year-old Brandyn Coppedge became entangled on a window blind cord, it took less than a minute for the toddler to strangle. His father says the safety device designed to prevent such a tragedy had broken, but the window blind was never recalled.
"They need to make the product safer," said Navy Chief Petty Officer Phillip Coppedge, who lives in Norfolk, Va.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates about 500 children have strangled on the cords of blinds and shades since the early 1980s, an average of about one child each month.
Blinds and shades are some of the deadliest products subject to recalls announced by the safety agency in the last 15 years. Yet the government has failed to require manufacturers to design safer blinds and shades, relying instead on the industry to develop its own standards.
Despite some redesigns and even recalls, fatality figures in the past decade aren't much different than in the 1990s, according to government records provided by Linda Kaiser of Parents for Window Blind Safety. She founded the advocacy group in 2002 after her 1-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, strangled on the inner cord of a blind.
Records show an average of 14 deaths per year from the mid-1990s to 2000, followed by a moderate decline and then a rise in 2008 to about 17 children strangling on cords from window blinds and shades.
Under federal rules, the CPSC can set mandatory standards for products when an industry's voluntary standards don't adequately improve safety, but it hasn't done so with window coverings.
The safety agency has fought perceptions that it's slow to take action, catching up late to high levels of lead found in toys on store shelves and most recently instances of the metal cadmium found in imported jewelry.
Its chairman, Inez Tenenbaum, has urged blind and shade makers to improve their voluntary standards and has threatened federal action, said agency spokesman Scott Wolfson. But Tenenbaum, who has been in office about eight months, has set no deadline for manufacturers to comply.
Wolfson said the agency is first focused on making the next meeting of the industry's standards committee "as effective as possible." Officials from the CPSC and the blinds industry are scheduled to discuss revisions to Roman shades and roll-up blind standards next week.
Wolfson said agency staffers have been pushing the industry to develop safer blinds and shades for several years.
Manufacturers don't want new government rules. The blinds and shades industry says it has worked with the government to improve safety standards for window coverings, and the industry has organized educational campaigns to warn about potential dangers.
The blind and shade manufacturing industry reported an estimated $2.5 billion in revenue last year, according to industry research firm IBISWorld.
"The voluntary standard route is really the way to go" because the products aren't dangerous for everyone, said Ralph Vasami, executive director of the Window Covering Manufacturers Association, a group of manufacturers, including Hunter Douglas Inc. and Springs Window Fashions. Vasami said there is no danger in homes without young children.
Kelly Horvath, a stay-at-home mom in Painesville, Ohio, sued Wal-Mart, a manufacturer and others and agreed to a high-priced settlement after her son strangled on a window shade cord, according to court records. Jim Onder, a St. Louis lawyer who has represented families against manufacturers and retailers in lawsuits, has argued that these companies are slow to act.
Despite reports of deaths since the 1970s, the industry and the CPSC didn't agree to eliminate loops at the end of pull cords until the mid-1990s. Roughly five years later, they revised standards to eliminate another problem — cord loops that could form between blind slats.
More recently, the industry voluntarily recalled more than 50 million Roman shades and roll-up blinds in December — about three years after the CPSC received reports of Roman shades strangling small children.