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Child deaths are tragic reminder that products pose risk long after recall

A hope chest recalled by Lane Furniture Company
Two more children suffocated in a hope chest recalled by Lane Furniture Company, bringing the total over the years to nine.CPSC

The deaths of two Massachusetts siblings who became trapped in an antique hope chest are a tragic reminder that dangerous items may remain in homes even years after a recall, and safety experts are urging parents to search their homes for the chests and other unsafe products.

“The majority of children’s products that are recalled remain in use,” said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids in Danger, adding that at best, 30 percent of recalled kids’ products are fixed or returned.

“It’s very dangerous,” she said Wednesday. “It’s a hidden hazard in the home. A recalled product doesn’t necessarily look dangerous, so unless you know it’s been recalled, your kids are at risk with the product.”

The chest that an 8-year-old girl and her 7-year-old brother became trapped in on Sunday was made by the Lane Furniture Company on July 13, 1939, and could not be opened from the inside, the Norfolk County prosecutor’s office said.

In 1996, the company recalled the 12 million cedar chests it made from 1912 to 1987 with lids that automatically latched shut when closed, after reports that six children suffocated and died inside them. The Consumer Product Safety Commission and the company renewed the search for the chests in 2000, announcing another suffocation death and two near fatalities.

Mark Massarella knows about the danger first hand: In 1999, his daughter, Natalie, died at age 15 in a chest the family had received from the girl’s great-grandmother only months earlier. Natalie was in her room with the door locked and the music on, and only her sister was home with her.

“We always hope that we can help with our experience to publicize the fact that these are dangerous and that people need to take action,” he said. “They’re passed down from one generation to the next. They last forever.”

Though the recall began before Massarella’s daughter died, he said he has “never met anybody that ever knew about this recall.”

The recall of the chests was one the safety commission’s largest of children’s products, though other recalls have covered millions of other popular items that can be dangerous or deadly for kids, including drop-side cribs, roll-up window blinds, bassinets, play yards and jewelry containing lead.

The chests, though, may be a bit different than other recalled children’s product because they are rarely discarded, often kept for decades as heirlooms, experts said. They urged people to check their homes for the chests, and to remove the lock or get a free repair kit from the company.

“We do not want another child to die in a Lane cedar chest,” said Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. “We need parents, we need grandparents to know there was a recall years ago, and to check their basement, check their attic, check their house, and if they have them, it’s not too late to take advantage of the recall.”

“This is a life or death situation with this particular recall announcement,” he added.

Not knowing about a recall is the most common reason people don’t comply, Cowles said.

“With all that’s going on in the world, it’s unlikely you’re going to hear about it,” she said. “Or they hear about it and forgot to follow up and take action, they don’t understand the risk of it or it’s not economically feasible to parents to comply with recalls for which there isn’t a fix.”

On Tuesday, the C.P.S.C. began an investigation into the origin of the chest involved in the latest deaths.

“It’s about understanding how did this product remain in this home and what can we do in learning more about this family’s experience to help us educate other families,” Wolfson said. “A recall of 12 million units is so large, we know there’s going to be products that remain in homes.”

He could not say how many of the recalled chests are still out there, and Heritage Home Group, the company that owns Lane, did not return messages left by phone and email.

Cowles said parents need to check their homes for recalled products but said the burden remains on manufacturers to keep informing the public as people inherit the chests and become parents themselves.

“The companies that made these chests, many are still in business and they need to continue to do outreach efforts and campaigns to get word out to new generations,” Cowles said. “The companies need to use all the tools at their disposal that they use to sell the products to get them out of homes once they’re found dangerous.”

Safety experts said parents can sign up with various agencies and organizations including C.P.S.C. for recall announcements, register their purchases with manufacturers to be notified of recalls, check products already in their home against recall lists and be wary of second-hand items. There’s also the old-fashioned advice for child-proofing your home: get down on all fours.

“Get on the floor again and think like a kid,” said Anthony Green, director of public policy for Safe Kids Worldwide. “What can my 5-year-old get into that I’m not thinking about?”

For Massarella, news of the sibling deaths brought back the pain of losing his daughter.

“With this new one coming up this week, it brings all this back to the surface,” he said. “It’s like it just happened yesterday.”