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Window blind cords can be deadly for children, experts warn

Last Updated Dec 11, 2017 12:13 PM EST

New research serves as a warning about a common household item that can pose a serious safety threat to young children: window blind cords.

A new study published in the journal Pediatrics found that over a 26-year period, nearly 17,000 children were treated in the emergency room for injuries related to window blinds and 271 died, most from strangulation after becoming entangled in the cords.

Jeremy and Carol Eastburn lost their 4-year-old daughter Presley Marie to a window blind cord injury last year.

In an interview with "CBS This Morning," they said Presley was in the family room watching television alone for about 10 minutes when she made her way to the window and became entangled in the cord attached to the blinds. Carol was on the phone with her husband, who recalled hearing "the most horrible blood curdling scream" when she discovered what had happened.

"It was like all the life had been sucked out of her," Carol said. As she dialed 911, "I just told Presley, 'Mommy's here. Hold on for Mommy. And I love you. I love you. I love you.'"

Little Presley, strangled by the cord, died five days later.

"I miss her holding my face and looking into my eyes, and telling me, you know, how much she loved me," Carol said.

Tragically, the risk of strangulation has been known about for years.

"We've known about this problem since the 1940s. The findings of this study confirm that children continue to die from strangulation on window blind cords. This is unacceptable," Dr. Gary Smith, the senior author of the study and Director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital, told CBS News.

The first reports of window blind injuries were identified in the medical literature as early as 1945. Today's study looked at window blind-related injuries treated in the ER in children younger than 6 between 1990 and 2015.

Entanglement injuries accounted for nearly 12 percent of all cases. More than 80 percent of all the injuries were to the neck.

Smith said that children between the ages of 1 and 4 are at the greatest risk of injury from window blind cords as they gain mobility and become more curious about their surroundings.

"They are able to reach blind cords, but they do not understand the danger of strangulation and are unable to free themselves once entangled," he said.

The study "should be a huge wake-up call to the public, to the retailers, to the manufacturers and to parents all over the nation to really see how hazardous the cords on the blinds are," Linda Kaiser of St. Louis told the Associated Press. Her 1-year-old daughter died from strangulation in 2002 when she pulled a looped hidden cord from a window blind and put it around her neck. Kaiser later formed the advocacy group Parents for Window Blind Safety.

Smith notes that the most serious injuries in the study occurred while the child was under a parent's supervision and had been left alone for less than 10 minutes while either going to sleep, playing, or watching TV.

"There is a misperception that if we just watch our kids carefully, they will be safe. But even the best parent in the world cannot watch their child every second of every day," he said. "Young children are quick, curious, and unable to recognize danger. Many parents underestimate these factors. A curious child can quickly get entangled in a window blind cord. This can lead to strangulation within minutes."

The authors call for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to mandate that window blind manufacturers only sell products that do not pose these hazards for children. 

Manufacturers say they're addressing the problem. In a statement, the Window Covering Manufacturers Association says a voluntary process with CPSC will result next year in "the most significant change to the window covering safety standard ever," with a requirement that all blinds sold in retail stores or online be cordless or have inaccessible cords. They say that change should cover more than 80 percent of products sold.

CPSC acting chairman Ann Marie Buerkle says mandatory standards take a long time to develop. "The voluntary standard process is far more nimble and quicker and I'm very encouraged that we're about to cross the finish line and make sure that we have safe products out in the market place," she told "CBS This Morning."

But safety advocates and parents affected say the process is taking too long.

"Are there dead children? Because I would say they haven't done enough," Jeremy Eastburn said.

"Safe, affordable cordless blinds and shades are widely available," Smith said. "A mandatory federal safety standard should be adopted prohibiting the sale of products with accessible cords if the industry is not willing to do this through the voluntary standard process."

Until then, the authors say the best way to keep kids safe is to replace all the blinds that have cords in the home with either cordless blinds, blinds with inaccessible cords, or other types of cordless window coverings, such as interior window shutters, draperies, and curtains.

If replacing all the blinds in the house is not possible, experts suggest starting with windows in the rooms where children spend the most time, such as bedrooms and living rooms, and then replacing others when you can.

Cribs, beds, couches, and other furniture should also be moved away from windows so children cannot climb on them to get to the window or window blind cords.

"Talk to people at the other places where your child spends time such as the grandparents' house, child care, or school," Smith said. "Ask them to also remove window blinds with cords to help keep your child safer."

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    Ashley Welch covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com