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Falling flat-screen TVs growing threat to kids

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Samara Brinkley dozed off just for a moment as she was watching cartoons on TV with her 4-year-old daughter. 

Then “I heard the boom, and I woke up and I [saw] my child laying on the floor, and I [saw] a pool of blood coming out in the back of her head,” said Brinkley, 26, of Jacksonville, Fla.

Dymounique Wilson, one of Brinkley’s two daughters, died last Wednesday when the family’s 27-inch television fell over on her.

Nearly 17,000 children were rushed to emergency rooms in 2007, the last year for which complete figures were available, after heavy or unstable furniture fell over on them, a new study reported this month. The study, published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics by researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, found that the such injuries had risen 41 percent since 1990.

The increase correlated with the popularity of ever-bigger flat-panel televisions that Americans have brought into their homes in that time, along with the entertainment centers and narrow, less-stable stands to hold them. Injuries from televisions alone accounted for nearly half of all injuries related to falling furniture during the study period — 47 percent.

Three-quarters of the victims of falling furniture are younger than 6 years old, and children that age “simply don’t recognize the danger of climbing on furniture,” said Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

That makes it imperative that parents take steps to secure flat-panel TVs, which have narrow centers of gravity, and other top-heavy pieces, said Yvonne Holguin-Duran, a child safety specialist with University Health System in San Antonio, Texas.

“If we just take one glance around our house, [parents can] see what safety dangers on their level these children can get into,” Holguin-Duran said.

Tougher voluntary rules have little impact

Like many other childhood bumps and bruises, most of the injuries related to falling furniture were minor. But 3 percent of the 264,200 children whose cases were reviewed from 1990 to 2007 were injured seriously enough to require hospital admission — most of them for head and neck injuries — and about 300 of them died.

The report “demonstrates the inadequacy of current prevention strategies and underscores the need for increased prevention efforts,” Smith said.

The number of accidents has risen even as regulators have paid more attention to the problem since 2004, after ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials) published revised voluntary manufacturing standards to reduce the likelihood that big furniture pieces could tip over.

There is only so far current technology can go to make a modern television stable, however, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania pointed out in a 2006 study of the hazards of modern TVs.

Americans have fallen in love with flat-panel displays, which often pack as much as a hundred pounds of circuitry and glass into a panel only a few inches thick. They are top-heavy and are expected to balance, more or less precariously, on lightweight stands or to hang from wall brackets that are often inexpertly installed by home do-it-yourselfers.

By contrast, older cathode ray tube sets were big and blocky. While they, too, were, relatively unstable, with most of their weight at the front, they did incorporate a broader base with a lower center of gravity, which allowed them to rest more stably on the floor or on a tabletop.

And homeowners eager to get to watching their new sets frequently ignore instructions for how to secure their consoles.

“In our study population, none of the televisions or the furniture that they were placed on was secured,” the Penn researchers said.

‘Keep an eye on your child’

In 2005, Congress took a stab at the problem. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., introduced legislation that would have required the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to set more rigorous standards for furniture that “poses a substantial risk of tipping” or that includes a glass surface or pane.

That measure died in committee. It again died in committee after Schwartz tried a second time in late 2007.

Until laws are strengthened to mandate safety straps and anchor mechanisms, parents are largely on their own in making sure their homes are safe, Smith said. Fortunately, he said, “following a few simple prevention steps” dramatically reduces the likelihood of injury:

  • Place television sets low to the ground and near the backs of their stands.
  • Strap televisions and other large furniture to the wall with safety straps or L-brackets.
  • Buy furniture with wide legs or with solid bases.
  • Install drawer stops on chests of drawers and place heavy items close to the floor on shelves.
  • Eliminate kids’ impulse to climb by remembering not to place items like toys or the remote control on top of furniture or the television.
  • Always keep tabs on where your kids are and what they’re doing.

Samara Brinkley will always regret nodding off for that one moment. Police theorize that Dymounique was trying to retrieve her Dora the Explorer book from atop the TV when it tipped off its stand last week.

“I want every parent out there please be careful,” Brinkley said. “Keep an eye on your child, because you never know what might happen if you turn your back for a quick second.”

Tony Porter of Greensburg, Ind., didn’t even have that chance.

His 2-year-old daughter, Vanessa, was at day care when a television set that wasn’t bolted down fell on her last August, breaking her cheeks, nose, jaw, palate and eye sockets. Vanessa was hospitalized in intensive care and subsequently underwent several operations to repair her face.

“Nobody should have to go through this,” Tony Porter said. “No child of that age — of any age — should have to go through this.”