DISTRESSING CONTENT WARNING: The tragic death of a toddler who was strangled by the inner cords of a roman blind has led to a call for regulations of the hidden and little-known home hazard.
Coroner Mary-Anne Borrowdale investigated the death of the 19-month-old whose neck became caught in the cords at the back of a roman blind in 2018.
The coroner found that since 2009 there had been five other deaths in New Zealand where children had become entangled in roman blind cords and one who had become entangled in a roller blind cord.
New Zealand has no regulations covering blind cords, despite many other countries making safety standards law to help prevent accidental strangulation.
The coroner said there had been some efforts to educate the public, “but those efforts, while laudable, are alone not sufficient to protect young New Zealanders”.
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The little girl had been put to bed about 6.30pm and was unable to be resuscitated when her mother found her about three hours later.
Her parents had the blind custom-made for a high narrow window and had received no safety advice for using it.
The blind, which had a cord for operating it, also had loops of cords at the back.
The girl’s parents thought she might have got out of bed to look out the window to see her father who had come home shortly after she was put to bed.
Police believe she had become entangled in the inner cords at the back of the blind and was unable to get out, maybe tripping due to her feet being in a sleep sack.
The child and her parents’ names are suppressed.
It is not the first time roman blinds have ended a young life in New Zealand.
In 2011, 13-month-old Isahn Keenan-Richards accidentally hanged himself on roman blind cords. In 2013, Nelson couple Rebecca Malthus and Adam Hicks lost their 14-month-old son Mac after he became tangled in a blind cord.
Coroner Borrowdale said New Zealand had no mandatory blind cord regulations to protect the public and no enforceable requirements on design specifications, supply or installation of corded internal window coverings.
The coroner’s research into other countries found the United States ranked window blind cords among the top five hidden hazards in the home with most children who died aged between 12 and 15 months. Between 1981 and 1995, 183 children were killed by window blind cords and thousands were injured.
In the United States, blinds are required to carry warnings and in Australia, fatalities were halved once safety standards were introduced.
Quoting an American report, the coroner said: “The dangers associated with blinds are evident as toddlers gain mobility and become curious about their surroundings. Although possessing the motor skills necessary to access the blind cords, they lack the cognitive ability to understand the risk of strangulation or the developmental maturity to free themselves once entangled.”
The coroner said the New Zealand statistics – each case representing a deeply tragic loss of life – are highly concerning, given the low public awareness of the hazard.
There is some awareness of the risks of dangling cords – with Plunket and Safekids Aotearoa raising the issue – but no information about the inner cords.
A Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment report to the coroner by senior advisor for product safety, trading standards Brendan Noonan, said the ministry was not considering the development of standards.
It said New Zealand suppliers could follow applicable standards from the UK, Europe or Australia and use their own self-assessment process to help ensure their products were safe.
Even with a new standard there would be a significant number of New Zealand homes that had corded window coverings that had been in use for decades and would be a long-term risk, the report said.
Borrowdale said there were devices to retro-fit to blinds and those could be sold with new blinds to make them safe.
Some suppliers already strongly recommend customers use safety devices when buying – or that safety devices be retrofitted to existing blinds.
The coroner said: “I can not accept the suggestion made by MBIE to this inquiry that already installed blinds present a risk that can only be mitigated by information.
“My research has established that retro-fit safety devices and schemes to help consumers install those devices are available overseas. Education is not the only available mitigation.”
She said it was regrettable that New Zealand had not followed its closest international partners to impose regulation.
She recommended that there be regulation to reduce the mortality rate, along with parental education that corded blinds should never be used in bedrooms or playrooms and all cords should be completely out of reach.
Borrowdale said efforts to educate consumers, parents and homeowners should extend beyond the recommendation to install safety devices and draw attention to the risk of corded blinds.
”The children within that group of greatest risk include not only babies who might access long cords from within cots or bassinets, but also mobile toddlers and young children who might place themselves in the way of hazardous cords when moving into a dwelling. There is good evidence to suggest that the risks are especially acute to children aged under three years.”
After sending a copy of her findings to MBIE, the department withdrew its earlier statement that it was not considering mandatory regulations and said it was considering giving advice to the Minister of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, David Clark.
Clark expressed his “deepest sympathies to the whānau and others involved in this tragic death”.
“I welcome the coroner’s findings around how we might be able to protect children from the risks posed by window blind cords.”
In the past three years, the Government had issued a product safety policy statement for button batteries, and banned inclined sleepers.
“I have confidence that MBIE will consider the coroner’s findings in any advice they supply to me.”
Furnishing company Lewis’s has a child safety policy which offers a free safety audit and free child safety clips on roller blinds and roman blinds.
Various websites of other suppliers offer advice on safety around children.
Safekids Aotearoa, which provides advice to parents on child safety, fully supported the coroner’s findings.
Director Mareta Hunt said her heart went out to the whānau affected.
“Not many would be aware of this risk, so we will be raising awareness and advising that safety devices be retrofitted where appropriate.
“Window blind cords and strings are a risk for our pēpi and tamariki, so keep beds away from windows and make sure cords and strings are cleated or tied up and out of reach,” Hunt said.