On October 17, 2013, Erin Shero of Hixson, Tennessee, was at home with her 23-month-old son, Colton, and stepped out of the family room to fix him a snack. When she returned, she thought her son had fallen asleep beneath the window.
"Upon getting closer to him, I touched him and his little head rolled and I was able to see the window blind cord underneath his neck," she recalls. She untangled Colton from the cord, called 911, and began performing CPR.
Paramedics arrived and brought him to the hospital, where her toddler was pronounced dead.
Colton is one of too many children who have been victim to window covering cord strangulation—a preventable accident that many parents don't even realize is a safety concern. But the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) lists corded window coverings as one of the top five hidden hazards in American homes, with infants and children accidentally becoming entangled in window covering cords.
A study published in the journal Pediatrics highlights the problem these window covering cords continue to be. "We looked at 26 years of data from 1990 through 2015 for this study, and found that almost 17,000 children under six years of age were treated in hospital emergency departments in the US for window blind-related injuries, averaging almost two per day," senior study author Gary Smith, MD, DrPH, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital tells Parents.com.
"While the majority of children were treated and released, there was about one child death each month—most from strangulation when a child became entangled by the neck in a window blind cord." And that's just the children who made it to the ER.
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Tens of millions of window coverings have been recalled in recent years, including two unprecedented industry-wide recalls, over concerns that infants and toddlers are at risk of strangulation.
"There are no acceptable alternatives with cords at this point," says Linda Kaiser, who founded Parents for Window Blind Safety after one her toddler twins was strangled. "Since her death, over 160 children have died and nearly 150 more have been severely injured. These are preventable accidents as long as parents have the correct information."
To this end, here are guidelines for parents to keep their children safe:
"Any unsafe window treatments in your home should be replaced with an updated product," says Katie Christopher, the in-house designer and a blind-safety expert at Blindsgalore. In the meantime, she advises to cut any looped pull cords to create individual cords, and to install inner cord stops to prevent them from being pulled out.
However, individual cords (even those with safety tassels) can still get tangled together, which is how Shero's son Colton died. And inner-cord stoppers aren't compatible with all window coverings.
Curious children—especially older kids—can easily climb up and reach them. Tension devices that prevent slack from a looped cord can't always be installed on all windows, and it's not good enough to wrap a pull cord around a cleat. Any cord kids can gain access to (even those hidden inside roman shades) is a threat.
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It is easier today to find cordless options. In fact, most of the major manufacturers, including Levolor, Hunter Douglas, and Bali, offer a considerable number of cordless options.
Some use a wand rather than a cord or chain to open and close or to change the position of the slats on blinds. Others are spring-loaded and go up and down when the bottom rail is pulled. Some Roman shades come with an option to remove the cords and instead use clips to hold the shades open.
With any option, look for a safety certified products by the Window Covering Manufacturers Association (WCMA). "The 'Best for Kids' label can be currently found on all products that have been certified safe in homes with small children," says Christopher.
In addition, the nonprofit Parents for Window Blind Safety developed another safety testing program. Products that pass their certification are labeled "Lab Tested, Mom Approved," so you can look for their seal of approval as well.
Parents for Window Blind Safety warns that some supposedly cordless Roman blinds still have dangerous cords in the rear, so check out the blinds before buying them to make sure they do not have any visible cords or chains.
The group also warns that even blinds with safety features and modifications, including breakaway cords, shortened cords, wind-up devices, and tension devices, cannot be relied upon to provide a safe environment for a young child.
Cord incidents are usually silent, as the child can't call for help when his airway is cut off, and strangulation can happen in minutes.
"Young children are quick, curious, and unable to recognize danger," Dr. Smith says. "As a pediatric emergency medicine physician, I often have heard these words when a parent brings their injured child into the emergency department: 'Doctor, I turned my head for a minute, and it happened so quickly, I did not have time to stop it.'"
The best way to stop entanglement is to replace the blinds and shades that pose this very avoidable hazard. Period.
"I didn't know about children dying in window cord blinds prior to this and I had already raised four other children, so we had all of the safety precautions already in place—or so I thought," Shero says.
Since 2010, the CPSC has recommended the use of cordless window coverings, as children are at risk from pull cords, looped cords and chains, inner cords, and lifting loops for roll-up blinds. "It's not something that you're going to look at as a danger," says Leslie Wentz of Plain City, Utah, who lost her daughter Abbigale to window blind cord strangulation in September 2006.
But these recommendations are not enough, especially because they rely on consumers to take action. "These child deaths are unacceptable because we have known about this problem since the 1940s," Dr. Smith says. "What we need now is for manufacturers to simply eliminate accessible cords in all of their products, including custom blinds and shades."
Industry change is starting to happen. In 2017, the WCMA proposed adopting new industry standards. "The WCMA along with the Consumer Product Safety Commission and fellow safety advocates are doing their best to require that all stock products, both online and in stores, are either cordless or have inaccessible cords,"
Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, said progress has been made and more needs to be.
"We're trying to mitigate the hazard as best we can going backwards and eliminate the risk going forward," said Wolfson.
The government, safety advocates, and the industry have been working to reach a consensus on rules that would dictate how shades and blinds will be made so that even corded models would be safer, by preventing access to the cords.
"We are not pushing for cordless (blinds) across all revisions to the standards," Wolfson said. "We want this industry to survive and to also have safer products that don't have exposed cord loops."
Read more about window cord safety at windowcoverings.org. You can also watch this series of videos created by Parents for Window Blind Safety which graphically demonstrates how easily each of those methods can fail, particularly when a toddler is involved.