Recent reports of lead-tainted toys and other hazardous merchandise has led to concerns about the effectiveness of product recalls. Too often, critics say, news of a recall doesn't reach the owners of dangerous products.
Nicola and Chad Johns of Roseville, Calif., believe the nation's product recall system is broken. In April 2005, they put their 9-month-old baby boy, Liam, to bed in a crib. Everything seemed normal until the next morning, when Nicola went back to her son's room.
"I saw my son hanging from the crib," she said, "his neck basically caught at the mattress. So his chin was resting on the mattress and the rest of this body was hanging straight down."
When Nicola pulled Liam out of the crib he wasn't breathing, and she feared the worst. She was right.
"We gave him CPR until the paramedics came," she said. "He was pronounced dead at the hospital. He was 9 months old."
To many, the story of the death of Liam Johns is indicative of a wider problem with America's recall system.
The crib that killed Liam was made in China by Pennsylvania-based Simplicity, Inc. It is also marketed under the Graco brand. Like many cribs, it had one side that could drop down to make it easier for parents to reach their baby. But in this crib, that drop-side came loose, allowing Liam's neck to get wedged between the side and the mattress.
Liam's death prompted Nicola and Chad Johns to file suit against Simplicity, Inc. They argued that a design flaw and unclear assembly instructions created the deadly hazard. Their lawyer, Charles Kelly, alerted the Consumer Product Safety Commission of the danger.
Kelly says he was astonished at how long it took the CPSC to respond to the case.
"I alerted the CPSC in June of 2005 about Liam's death," Kelly said, "and it wasn't until over two years later that they sent a field investigator to come to look at the crib and take it away."
By then, the crib model had killed two more babies; temporarily trapped seven others, and prompted more than 50 complaints. Finally, this past September — two and a half years after Liam Johns' death — the CPSC and Simplicity recalled 1 million cribs, the largest crib recall ever.
But it remains to be seen how effective the recall will be.
According to Kelly, the process is inadequate. He objects to the fact that the recall allows the company to merely send a repair kit to parents and ask them to repair the defective cribs themselves.
Kelly says Simplicity should be required to track down the dangerous cribs, get them back and give their customers full refunds. Instead, it's up to customers to figure out if they have a problem.
Simplicity has set up a toll-free number that provides a series of questions and instructions about how to get and install a repair kit.
The company did not respond to numerous requests by NPR to talk about the case. It released a statement last September saying, "Simplicity strives to make safe products; that is our number 1 priority. That's why we worked with the CPSC to take this action."
But to some consumer advocates, this particular recall is troubling.
Among them is Donald Mays, director for Public Safety Planning at Consumers Union.
"Simplicity bragged about the fact that they got a great response rate [to the recall]," Mays said.
"There were 45,000 responses to their recall action. That means there are still over 950,000 hazardous cribs still remaining in the homes of unsuspecting consumers," Mays said.
The Simplicity crib case is indicative of the problems of recalls in general, Mays said.
An investigation by Consumer Reports found that almost one-third of all recalled vehicles, more than half of all toys and appliances, and three-quarters of child car seats are never repaired or returned to stores.
But the CPSC doesn't rate the success of a recall by how many products are returned, said Julie Vallese, spokesperson at the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
"The way the CPSC determines if there was a successful recall," Vallese said, "is if the number of incidents, injuries or reports of complaints go down once the recall goes out."
Vallese couldn't talk about why it took the CPSC more than two years to investigate and recall those Simplicity cribs. She isn't allowed to do so without Simplicity's permission.
But Donald Mays of the Consumer Union says the Consumer Product Safety Commission is woefully understaffed, with only 400 full-time employees — 15 of whom actually work the docks to prevent unsafe products from crossing our borders.
"There are over 300 ports," Mays said. "Fifteen people can't cover them all."
Mays says manufacturers should be required to do comprehensive testing to ensure products are safe before they are sold. Many companies now do that on their own, but Mays says they should be required by law. He also supports legislation pending in Congress that would require product registration cards to be sent out with high chairs, strollers, cribs and other juvenile durable goods.
For their part, Nicola and Chad Johns favor tougher laws, even if it's too late to save their son and the two other babies who died in the Simplicity cribs.
"We're not going to stop until we have some kind of law change," Nicola said. "We can't save our child," she added. "But we can save other people's, hopefully."
Nicola Johns and her husband Chad eventually settled with Simplicity, but they're barred from disclosing the terms. But that's not stopping them from continuing to speak out.