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Ikea’s killer dressers and America’s hidden recall crisis

Ikea has recalled tens of millions of products, many of them related to children. So why are kids still dying? And why can’t the government do anything about it?

Ikea’s killer dressers and America’s hidden recall crisis
[Source Image: Ikea]

On May 14, 2017, Meghan DeLong found her 2-year-old son, Connor, crushed under an Ikea Hemnes dresser. He was not responsive. According to public court documents in a lawsuit that DeLong later filed against Ikea, Connor did not survive.

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In 2016, Ikea recalled 29 million of its dressers after six children died when the furniture toppled over. But the dressers that killed Connor DeLong have not been recalled. The Hemnes dresser has also tipped over onto twin boys, which you can see in the harrowing video below. Luckily, neither boy was serious injured.

Over the past 10 years, Ikea has recalled millions of products, many of them related to children, including high chairs, crib mattresses, kids’ bedroom lights, canopies, beds, a kids’ swing, a costume cape, and a kids’ tent. While some of these products were recalled as a preventative measure and no kids were reported as hurt, others caused major and minor injuries to children, from scratches and broken limbs to strangulation. On top of that, there’s the infamous 2016 recall, which the company re-announced in late 2017 when another child was killed by a recalled Malm dresser that still hadn’t been returned to Ikea or secured to the wall–as Ikea had suggested customers do–more than a year later.

That recall was the biggest furniture recall in history. But dangerous furniture isn’t limited to Ikea. Other companies have recalled poorly made dressers as well, including Target, Wal-Mart, and Amazon. A December 2018 report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the federal regulatory agency that oversees consumer product recalls, estimates that 14,000 children were injured from tipover accidents, including furniture, television, and appliance tipovers, between 2015 and 2017 alone. An estimated 7,600 have been injured from furniture tipovers alone during that time period. The same agency found that a child dies every two weeks in an accident related to furniture, appliance, and television tipovers. On November 19, 2016, the parents of 3-year-old Harper Ayva Fried found her underneath her dresser and rushed her to the emergency room, but Harper didn’t make it. “The remainder of that day, and each day since, our lives have been a nightmare that we will never wake from,” her parents wrote on the website for the foundation they started in her honor, Harper Smiles, which aims to educate parents about the dangers of tipovers. Now, there’s a law named for Harper in committee at the New York State Senate that would require furniture sellers to offer wall anchors with certain types of furniture. It has not yet passed the Senate.

But the law would just scratch the surface of a larger problem. Tipovers are a public health crisis. And thanks to weakened regulations, there’s very little anyone can do about it. 

[Illustration: FC]

Anatomy of a recall

Recalls fall under the jurisdiction of a host of federal agencies, but it’s the job of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to oversee more than 15,000 consumer goods–mainly, the stuff that you have in your house, not including food, cars, and medicine. When it comes to consumer goods, a recall begins when a company with a hazardous product reaches out to the CPSC (companies are required by law to report product safety issues to the agency), or the agency hears reports from consumers about a hazardous product and reaches out to the company. Many companies will agree to a recall voluntarily. Nancy Cowles, the executive director of the nonprofit Kids in Danger (KID), which focuses on kids’ product safety, says that a company negotiates with the CPSC over how much it has to do as part of a formal recall. Then, the company signs a contract with the agency detailing how it will carry out the recall (this typically includes pledging to do outreach campaigns to customers). If a company refuses to agree to a recall, the CPSC has to get a court order to force the company to carry it out–in other words, the CPSC has to sue, which can be a lengthy process and very expensive. That’s why most recalls are voluntary.

[Source Photo: Ikea]
Here’s what happened with Ikea in 2016: After agreeing to voluntarily recall 8 million Malm dressers and 21 million other models, the company launched an extensive communication strategy to spread the word about its recall, including print and digital advertising, social media, and search advertising. An Ikea spokesperson said that media around the 2016 recall has received close to 9 billion impressions across television, print and digital news stories, and advertising. The company also reached out to 13 million customers via email regarding that recall (the company declined to say what percentage of total consumers that number accounts for). Ikea says this communication strategy has gone beyond what the company explicitly agreed to in its contract with the CPSC, because it also included a national advertising campaign.

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As a result, 1.3 million dressers to date have been “addressed” through customers returning them, Ikea picking the dressers up, or the company distributing wall attachment kits (though there’s no guarantee that customers will use the kits). Ikea also says it has sold dressers with wall attachment kits for decades. In 2015, 11 months before the formal recall took place, Ikea started a more robust “Secure It” campaign to convince customers of the importance of securing their chests of drawers to the wall.

Ikea says that it encourages customers to anchor all dressers over a certain height to the wall by providing kits to do so; information about tip-overs is included in assembly instructions, as well as on the price tag, store signage, and on the website. People can also request a free wall-anchoring kit no matter how old their dresser is or contact the company, which will send someone to the consumers’ home, for free, to anchor the dresser for them. The company is still accepting returns of the recalled Malm chest of drawers and will refund customers. Ikea will also pick up any dressers free of charge and provide a refund if contacted.

Ikea says that it has had an internal reporting system for 20 years, which requires any Ikea unit to report internally if it hears stories of an Ikea product hurting someone so the issue can be investigated. Ikea did not address how, or whether, the company has internally processed reports about the Hemnes dresser, the furniture that killed 2-year-old Connor.

[Illustration: FC]

Does a recall even work?

Despite their prevalence, recalls may not be an effective strategy for removing dangerous goods from consumers’ homes. Recalls hinge on communication: Companies must reach out to customers to let them know they’ve purchased a faulty product. However, it’s tough to know exactly how persuasive these efforts are.

The 1.3 million dressers that have been returned or provided with wall attachment kits represent just 4.5% of the 29 million recalled dressers that Ikea estimates it sold in the United States. That 1.3 million figure also includes wall attachment kits that the company distributed before the recall through the Secure It campaign (and, of course, there’s no guarantee that customers ever used the wall attachment kits). A recent survey by Consumer Reports found that only about a quarter of adults have anchored their furniture securely.

Might the figure go up over time, as more people return the dressers? Not likely, says Will Wallace, a senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports Advocacy (formerly Consumers Union). Recalls are most effective in the first six months following the initial announcement because of news related to the recall and company marketing. “The number of dangerous recalled dressers that Ikea has managed to get out of people’s homes is abysmally low,” Wallace says.

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Part of the problem is that advertising just isn’t a great way to reach customers. “Something the CPSC has studied and products safety professionals know is that direct contact is by far the single most effective way for getting people to take action,” he says. That means companies should reach out to every single person who’s bought one of their recalled products to warn them not to use it anymore and let them know how to get a refund.

If a company has the contact information of customers who purchased a recalled product, it’s required by law to send them a letter. That’s why many children’s products, like car seats, cribs, and high chairs, come with a registration card that the customer fills out and mails back to the manufacturer, so the company has the customer’s contact information in case of a recall. But Ikea says that it does not keep track of which products consumers buy (unless they buy online or have signed up for the company’s loyalty program) and has no plans as of now to use product registration cards to get consumers’ direct contact information in case of a recall.

In Ikea’s case, consumer advocates say that the company’s 2016 recall was long overdue in the first place. The first death reported from an Ikea dresser tipping over was in 1989, and the first report of a deadly Malm dresser was in 2011. “Ikea knew it had a product safety problem on its hands,” Wallace says. “It took years for the company to take any meaningful action. And when it did recall its dressers, Ikea hadn’t done nearly enough to publicize the recall, to contact people directly, and make sure these dangerous products get out of people’s homes.”

[Illustration: FC]

Where is the government in all this?

The other problem with recalls is that there are almost no consequences for failing to effectively carry them out in the United States.

The CPSC’s history has made the negotiation and oversight it is charged with difficult to do. The agency was founded in 1972 during an era when Congress was establishing and strengthening federal agencies. However, when the Reagan era of deregulation arrived, Congress gutted the CPSC, cutting 25% of its funding in 1981 and forcing the agency to cut staff and postpone or abandon some of its investigations into alleged hazards. That’s partially why recalls have become a negotiation between the offending company and the CPSC–most of the time, companies undertake recalls voluntarily, under the threat of litigation that rarely happens because it is so time-consuming and resource-intensive for the underfunded agency.

When a recall is voluntary, the CPSC doesn’t have as much leverage, short of litigation, to ensure the recall is carried out. But the agency does sue sometimes: In February 2018, the CPSC sued the children’s product company Britax over a faulty jogging stroller that had injured 50 children and 40 adults because the company refused to recall the product, arguing that the injuries had resulted from misuse, rather than poor design. But once a recall is agreed to, there’s little the government can do to ensure it’s carried out effectively. “Frankly, if there aren’t sanctions for not doing a good recall, what’s the downside to companies?” says Cowles, the executive director of Kids in Danger. “[They] have some liability, but we know people will gamble on that. The more products it gets back, the more it costs them. They gamble that the big lawsuit won’t happen.”

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The recall and the big lawsuit have happened in Ikea’s case: Three families whose children were killed by the Malm chest of drawers sued the company in a civil court wrongful death lawsuit, settling in late 2016 for $50 million. But that hasn’t convinced Ikea to recall the Hemnes dressers that killed a toddler in 2017. Many of its other children’s products have been recalled for less severe injuries, like a broken leg or scratches.

Some countries have strict rules around recalls: In the U.K., regulators can sue companies that refuse to recall hazardous products in criminal court and then conduct the recall themselves. But many other countries don’t: In France and Germany, there are no specific sanctions over a delayed or ineffective recall, and Sweden also has few legal safeguards. Ikea’s problematic Malm dressers were never recalled in Europe, though several of the company’s other children’s products have been recalled over the last decade. Ikea’s Malm dressers were eventually recalled in China after outraged consumers heard about the U.S. recall. Today, public outcry is doing much of the work that government agencies cannot.

[Illustration: FC]

A gag order that hurts consumers

The U.S. government’s hands are tied in other ways as well, based on a statute that’s specific to the CPSC. In 1970, the Federal Trade Commission accused the chemical manufacturer DuPont of misleading the public about an antifreeze that the agency alleged was destroying the insides of cars. However, after months of investigation, the FTC found no evidence of wrongdoing and walked back its claims. Congress was infuriated by the FTC’s accusations without real evidence and passed restrictions on the CPSC’s ability to disclose information to the public. Yes, you read that right: Congress punished the CPSC, rather than the FTC. “Ironically Congress never imposed restrictions on the information disclosure by the FTC, but instead made an example of the CPSC,” wrote current CPSC commissioner Robert Adler in a scathing 1989 article in the Administrative Law Review. “In fact, the CPSC is the only health and safety agency that operates with substantial restrictions on information disclosure.”

That’s why, when a recall occurs, the CPSC has to work with the company on any information that the public will see, including all the language for a press release. And because of this ’80s-era change to the law, the agency has very little power to inform the public without the company’s approval, short of taking it to court.

Even though the CPSC knew that Ikea’s dressers were killing kids before the recall, the agency couldn’t publicly warn consumers without Ikea’s permission until the terms of the recall had been agreed upon. Then, during the recall, when the company is required to have a monthly progress report with the CPSC revealing how many consumers it reached out to and how many recalled products it retrieved, the agency can’t share any of that information without the company’s approval either. To release the information anyway and override the company, Wallace says that the CPSC has to “jump through a lot of hoops that take months and a lot of staff time for an agency that’s woefully underfunded.”

Cowles says her nonprofit, Kids in Danger, has submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for these kinds of documents, but most are redacted completely, down to the number of Facebook posts a company will share about a recall. “I could just go count that. How could that be protected?” Cowles says. “[The statute] really stifles consumers’ understanding.”

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Cowles and other consumer advocates worked to pass a law in 2008 that would revise some of the issues with product safety in the United States, and taking this gag order out of the act was part of it. But Congress demurred and instead created saferproducts.gov, a crowd-sourced public database where citizens can post information about hazards they come across.

[Illustration: FC]

Product safety is voluntary

So if recalls aren’t particularly effective, what should a company do? The obvious answer: Develop safer products. But yet again, the regulatory framework is not on consumers’ side. There are no laws in place to ensure a company’s product development process results in safe products, because product safety is entirely voluntary.

Ikea stands by its product development process, even when asked why it still sells the deadly Hemnes dresser that killed Connor DeLong in 2017. An Ikea spokesperson said: “Throughout our product development, we have formalized product risk assessment as an important and crucial part of how we develop our products. Ikea chests of drawers and dressers are tested at accredited laboratories before being placed on the market. The chest of drawers and dressers currently being sold in Ikea U.S. stores since June 2016 meet the performance requirements of ASTM F2057-14 voluntary industry standard [a test which is used to ensure that dressers are safe and won’t tip over].”

This standard is measured by hanging a 50-pound weight from each drawer of a dresser that’s taller than 30 inches while the other drawers are closed, and testing whether the furniture tips over or not (for the standard, the furniture is not attached to the wall). It was established in 2000 by the independent organization ASTM International, which creates standards for thousands of products with the help of manufacturers, governments, academics, retailers, and consumers. But because it is voluntary, furniture companies do not have to adhere to it, nor do they need to test the products to ensure they meet the standard. Many still do, likely because they consider it a good test to see whether a dresser will tip over or not–and because it’s bad for business to injure or kill consumers.

But according to Consumer Reports, this standard is not stringent enough to prevent furniture tipovers. In 2018, the organization did a review of 24 chests from 11 companies and found that in many cases, adding a 50-pound weight to a single open drawer was enough to tip the furniture over.

Consumer Reports advocates for a stricter, mandatory standard of 60 pounds, which it says is more representative of the weight of a small child under age 6–the age group that suffers from 82% of dresser tipover deaths. The organization did test Ikea’s post-recall Malm dresser, though not its Hemnes dresser, and it passed this test. Other Ikea dressers, including one $69 model, also passed the 60-pound test, showing that inexpensive dressers that aren’t attached to the wall can still adhere to this standard.

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[Illustration: FC]

When corporations are more important than people

In 2011, Lisa Seifert went to wake her son Shane up from his afternoon nap and found him trapped under his dresser (which wasn’t made by Ikea but was also recalled by the CPSC). Shane died that day. “I had everything baby-proofed in my house,” she says, except for anchoring the dressers to the wall, which wasn’t common knowledge at the time, nor was it available at her local store’s baby-proofing section. “I remember walking through my house, saying, this is done, this is done.”

But it wasn’t enough. “If you think about this in a backward way, shouldn’t furniture be made safe, not to topple in the first place?” she says. “But if it isn’t, if it kills eight children and injures thousands more, then that’s already too late.”

Today, consumers are almost entirely reliant on companies designing their products with safety in mind, since there are so few repercussions for failing to do so. President Trump has also appointed several commissioners to the CPSC that are friendly to corporations, decreasing the likelihood that the CPCS can effectively enforce product safety regulations against powerful manufacturers.

Still, there are some things a consumer can do: Support advocacy groups like Kids In Danger and Consumer Reports Advocacy that are fighting for stricter standards; tell local representatives that you support stricter recall policy; and if you have children, make sure that you’re buying a dresser that passes the Consumer Reports standard, and anchor any current dressers to the wall.

The facts remain: Consumers’ safety is in the hands of an agency that’s been so crippled by deregulation, it can’t warn people when their dressers pose a threat to their toddlers without a corporation’s approval. And even when products are recalled, they’re not very effective, even when companies like Ikea do advertise the recall and reach millions.

Seifert went on to start a child safety nonprofit so she could warn other parents about a danger that no one–including the CPSC–had told her about. “It’s like a serial killer,” she says. “You know they [are] out there, and continue to kill more children.”

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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