Image: Evenflo Happy Cabana
Evenflo Happy Cabana portable play yards, above, were recalled because they could collapse and entrap a child. Fisher-Price Power Wheels Harley-Davidson motorcycles, above right, were recalled because the foot pedal could stick in the on position.
By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/31/2007 11:28:05 AM ET 2007-08-31T15:28:05

The recent toy recalls by Mattel, Fisher-Price, and RC2 (Thomas & Friends) were so big they were splashed on the front pages of newspapers across the country and were on national news broadcasts for days. But most recalled children’s products — indeed most of the 400 products of all kinds recalled each year — get little or no news coverage. That could be a major reason why fewer than 20 percent of these potentially dangerous products ever are returned.

What happens to them? In most cases, they remain in use, their owners unaware of the danger. Others are sold at garage sales or donated to thrift stores. They are also available on the Internet, which makes it possible for them to be resold at much higher prices.

According to a study published in this month’s Injury Prevention journal, a significant number of children’s products, including toys, are listed for sale on eBay. In many cases, these items had been recalled years earlier. Potential hazards include cuts, bruises, burns and and lead paint poisoning.

“It was very easy to find recalled products online, and that is very concerning to me,” says the survey’s lead author, Keri Brown Kirschman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Dayton who specializes in pediatric injury prevention.

What they did
Researchers randomly picked 141 children’s products recalled between 1992 and 2004 and searched for them on eBay. They included bassinets, baby walkers, dolls, infant furniture and riding toys.

Kirschman and co-author Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Columbus Children’s Hospital, found recalled items for sale at 190 different auctions.

The recalled items up for bid included:

  • Evenflo Happy Camper and Happy Cabana portable play yards recalled in 1997 because they could collapse and entrap a child. At the time three deaths were blamed on the problem.

Once the items were located, the auctions were tracked for 30 days. Here are the key findings from the study:

How eBay deals with recalls

The policy at eBay is very clear. It does not permit the listing of any item that has been recalled by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

“We have been workingvery closely with the CPSC for a number of years now to educate buyers and sellers about recalls,” eBay spokeswoman Nichola Sharpe told me via e-mail. "If the CPSC asks us to remove an item we will take it down."

Sharpe notes that eBay encourages buyers to find out about recalled items by visiting the CPSC Web site. There is a link on eBay’s "security and resolution" page.

CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson says the commission has “a good relationship” with eBay. CPSC tries to make sure eBay knows key words to help them create filters, to reduce the chance someone can buy a recalled item. “The eBay staff is very cooperative,” Wolfson says.

Study limitations
Researchers could not be certain that all the suspect products they found for sale on eBay actually represented a danger to children.

Many recalls involve sending the owner a part to fix the problem. For instance, the Power Wheels and Tek Nek riding toys identified in the study could have been repaired after the recalls were announced. But there’s no easy way for the buyer to know. Researchers had the same limitation.

Also, because many online listings do not include a serial number or manufacturer date, it is often hard to tell if that specific item is subject to the recall notice.

Study authors: More can be done
The fact is that significant numbers of recalled children’s products are still being sold online. “That tells us that these efforts are not adequate,” says Smith, the study co-author.

With so many recalls each year, it’s nearly impossible for a parent to keep up. That’s why Kirschman and Smith want toymakers, auction sites, and the government to work together to solve the problem.

“We have the technology,” Smith says. “We simply need to make it something that’s a priority and create the conditions that allow consumers to make a more informed choice.”

Kirschman and Smith would like to see identifying information — model numbers and manufacturer date — on the product, not just the box. Armed with this information, a potential buyer would get more accurate results when checking the CPSC’s recall list.

Online auction sites, they say, should more closely monitor and more vigorously enforce their own policies prohibiting the sale of recalled products.

Educating buyers on the importance of checking for recalls would be greatly enhanced, Kirschman and Smith say, if direct links to recall Web sites were prominently displayed at the bottom of each product listing.

The study authors make one more suggestion: They want manufacturers required to make some sort of change to the name or look of any toys made after a recall. This would make it easier for a parent to know that a toy is not involved in the recall. Of course, this is probably the least likely to happen.

Until more is done, Kirschman, who just had a baby, gives this advice to other parents: “If there’s any concern or it appears that a toy could have been part of a recall, choose another one. It’s just not worth the risk to your child.”

The bottom line
Parents need to be cautious when buying any used product — whether it’s at a yard sale, thrift store or online auction site. Take the time see if it’s been recalled. The CPSC database goes back to 1973. It only takes a minute to find out if the item you’re about to buy is dangerous. This isn’t a 100 percent foolproof system, but it’s the best you can do.

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