DENVER - The Consumer Product Safety Commission is now investigating one of the most popular baby toys on the market after a CALL7 report revealed dozens of complaints about it overheating and smoldering.
-- Parents complain --
Parents around the world reported problems with their Fisher-Price Soothe & Glow Seahorses.
"We thought it was just a fluke," said Chris Kellermann, who lives in Manchester, New Hampshire. He and his wife purchased their first Soothe & Glow Seahorse in 2011.
"I put the new batteries in, and I only got two out of the three batteries in, and I could see one of the coils actually starting to glow, starting to turn red," he said. "It started melting the plastic, and then the fumes of burning plastic and melting plastic kind of filled the kitchen."
But Kellerman learned it was no fluke after purchasing another seahorse around a year later.
"We bought a second one, a pink one for my daughter, and the same thing happened to hers when I tried changing the batteries later on," he said.
Virginia mom Sheena Bloomer said the toy started smoking while her 1-year-old daughter was playing with it.
"She just let out a loud scream," Bloomer said. "By the time I actually grabbed a hold of it, it was on fire."
Bloomer said she threw the flaming toy outside, burning her arm in the process.
Elizabeth Taff said she was burned, too. And the Freeport, Texas, mom believes her daughter could have been killed.
"I grabbed her blanket up, I noticed there was embers," Taff said. "She had the head of the seahorse underneath her. The belly is what caught fire."
When Taff removed the toy from her daughter's playpen, she said leaking battery acid burned her hand.
-- Subtle changes made to toy --
Every faulty toy sent to the CALL7 Investigators held three batteries. When the CALL7 Investigators purchased new Soothe & Glow Seahorses, some held two batteries, while others still required three.
Ron Rorrer, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Colorado Denver, compared all of the different models and discovered what may have been a quick fix by Fisher-Price: a capacitor added to some of the three-battery versions.
"That may have solved it short-term," Rorrer said.
Rorrer said capacitors, which can store excess charge in a circuit, were only present on the three-battery toys that had not had any problems. He said Fisher-Price may have added the capacitor to the faulty toys before changing to a two-battery compartment.
"I would say the capacitor certainly is an effort to fix the problem without having to go to a complete redesign of the battery compartment and drop it to two batteries over here," Rorrer said.
-- Federal investigation --
Fisher-Price has declined to comment on any changes made to the toy. In February 2014, the CALL7 Investigators filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Consumer Product Safety Commission for any records related to the Soothe & Glow Seahorse. Three months later, the CPSC had not provided those documents, attributing delays to both a technical systems change and to federal law, which requires that the agency provide manufacturers with multiple opportunities to dispute releasing records to the public.
The CALL7 Investigators have now confirmed the CPSC is investigating the toy. A mother from Appleton, Wisconsin told CALL7 Investigator Keli Rabon the agency sent a representative to her home.
"She took a bunch of pictures. She pretty much went over exactly what happened, the whole situation," Coenen said.
Coenen said the CPSC representative paid her for her seahorse, taking it for further analysis and promising to let her know if it was recalled.
"If it's a toy that's for babies or for toddlers, she said they really try and speed up the process," Coenen said.
Diana DeGette, a U.S. congresswoman from Colorado who serves on the committee that oversees the CPSC, said that's exactly how it should work.
"When the CPSC is receiving numerous consumer complaints, they should be really using their statutory authority, conducting the studies, getting the results, then issuing a recall," she said.
But the CALL7 Investigators found that out of thousands of recalls in the last decade, the CPSC has only forced a recall twice. DeGette says whether a product is recalled may depend on the company.
"There's no incentive for them to do that voluntary recall, unless they think there's some kind of a business reason, which is not always the best thing for consumers," DeGette said.
The CPSC’s own data suggests consumer complaints may have little influence. Of the 55 products in the "Toys & Children" category that were recalled in the last three years, only three had any complaints submitted to the CPSC prior to those recalls. But the CALL7 Investigators found 20 of the 104 complaints filed with the agency in 2014 under that category were about the Soothe & Glow Seahorse, which still has not been recalled.
When DeGette's office contacted the CPSC to ask about the status of the investigation and the possibility of a recall, the agency would only say it is aware of the issue.
Fisher-Price has refused the CALL7 Investigators' repeated requests for an interview, instead releasing a statement that reads in part, "We've received calls from a very small percentage of consumers who have experienced an issue with this product," and insisting, "the seahorse is safe."
To report a problem with the Soothe & Glow Seahorse or any other product, and to research complaints and recalls, go to SaferProducts.gov.