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CONSUMERS : On Alert for Hazardous Baby Items

Times Staff Writer

Just how safe are today’s baby products? Pretty safe, considering all the tough federal and state laws concerning their manufacture and safety status and the regulatory agencies and consumer organizations that watch over products for infants. But parents still should be alert for items that may have slipped through the cracks.

There are guidelines you can follow in inspecting some of these products--carseats, cribs, high chairs, rattles and toys and sleepwear--and agencies to report them to if you think they’re faulty and could be hazardous to an infant or small child.

“Most of the (baby products) industry is now following regulations,” said Rosario Quintanilla, public affairs specialist at the Los Angeles office of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, an independent regulatory agency. “But the problem is with used or passed-down furniture or things people find at swap meets or garage sales. They might have been made a long time ago and not meet today’s safety standards.”

Parents also can be unsuspecting victims of counterfeit products that have been imported into the United States. They may look like safe ones, but can be made of flimsy materials that make them unsafe for children.

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Take the current case of the Lin Lih child car seat, made by a Taiwan company and sold in the Los Angeles area. Child product safety experts believe that some of the dangerous car seats are still being sold here, and estimate hundreds more are in use by parents unaware that they are unsafe.

Discovered Last December

The dangerous aspects of the Lin Lih seats were discovered last December by Stephanie Tombrello, founder of the Los Angeles Area Child Passenger Safety Assn., a consumer watchdog group. Parents of a child who felt uncomfortable in her seat donated it to LAACPSA, and when Tombrello inspected it, she found that although it resembled an older, safe model car seat, it was, in fact, a faulty copy.

Plastic slides used in place of metal buckles to attach the harness to the metal frame cracked and broke when a seat was subjected to federal government crash tests, causing the child dummy to be thrown out of the seat. The seat did not pass flammability standards, either, although a sticker on the product assured that it did.

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City Atty. James Hahn has filed suit against the Lin Lih Baby Carriages Manufacturing Co. and several local toy distributors who were marketing the product. The city impounded about 2,300 of the seats.

But that doesn’t mean that they are all off the streets.

After a press conference warning about the unsafe seats, more than 100 concerned parents and grandparents called the LAACPSA office to inquire about the car seats.

“Twenty of the car seats described by callers were identified by our staff as dangerous fakes,” acting director of LAACPSA Cheryl Kim said. “What that means is that there are (probably) hundreds more out there still in use. Some that we found had been used for two years.”

If you think you have one of the Lin Lih seats, or any other child car seat you suspect is unsafe, you can call LAACPSA’s Safe Ride Helpline at (213) 673-2666.

Or, call the hot line number, (800) 424-9393, of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency that regulates the safety standards for children’s car seats.

Date of Manufacture Important

In checking a child’s car seat that you own or may purchase, be sure it has a sticker that says it conforms to the “federal standards for use in motor vehicles,” and that it also lists the name, location and date of manufacture.

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Make sure it was made after 1980, when the current federal standards for children’s car seats were set, rules that stipulate that a seat be crash-tested before it can be sold.

See that it has a complete harness system with shoulder and crotch straps, or a plastic shield over which the safety belt fastens.

If you’re buying a used car seat, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends making sure the seat was made after 1980, that it has all the parts, that it shows no cracks or twisting of metal--signs it might have been in a crash--and that you have the manufacturer’s instruction booklet.

The LAACPSA’s Kim goes a step further, recommending that you check the seat carefully for hairline cracks, loose rivets or other wear.

May Be Problems

As for children’s furniture, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Quintanilla says that most of the currently manufactured cribs and high chairs meet safety regulations, but there may be problems with older furniture made before commission standards were set.

Since 1974, crib slats must be no more than 2 3/8 inches apart; crib end panels may not have decorative cutout areas that could trap a child’s head; the crib’s carton, crib and assembly instructions must advise you to use only a mattress that fits snugly.

If you can fit more than two fingers between the mattress and crib, the mattress is too small.

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If you’re buying a second-hand crib, never buy one with missing slats or end panels.

For high chairs, select a sturdy one with a wide base that will be more stable and make sure that it has adequate safety straps and belts that attach to the chair to secure the baby.

Watch out for older models where the crotch strap is attached to the tray. When the tray is moved, the strap offers no protection for the infant and he or she could fall from the chair.

Some imported baby and children’s products may inadvertently slide by the U.S. Customs officers who inspect them when they enter the States. But Customs officers in Los Angeles say that they are catching more dangerous products during cargo examinations than they used to because agents took training courses with CPSC inspectors and are more aware of what to look for.

“We’re just doing a better job of finding it,” said U.S. Customs representative John Miller. “There are field tests we can do, put a toy or rattle through a testing tube to see if it’s possible for a baby to choke on it. There’s probably a lot more done on the safety of toys coming in, what the lead content is in the paint, if wheels are too small. But we’re much more aware of child safety than we were before.”

CPSC inspectors also will do product tests for consumers, and sometimes, mostly near Christmas, make on-site inspections of toy stores.

If you have a product that you think may not be safe, you can call the CPSC regional office in Los Angeles at (213) 251-7464 or the national hotline number, (800) 638-8270.

Both customs agents and CPSC inspectors have simple tests for safety of rattles and toys. You can do similar tests at home or in a store.

If a rattle, a toy or a removable toy part can be passed through a 2-inch by 1 5/8-inch opening, it could possibly choke the baby.

In the clothing department, CPSC requires that all children’s sleepwear through size 14 be made of flame-resistant material. But it does not have that same requirement for daywear, including diapers and underwear.

Although children’s sleepwear fabrics have to meet flammability standards, that means that they resist fire, but are not flameproof.

Quintanilla suggests parents make sure the sleepwear isn’t cotton, because “it is easily burnable.”

And she recommends parents follow washing instructions labeled on the garment.

“They should always follow instructions how to wash it, so they don’t risk it losing its flame resistance,” she noted.


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