A recent spate of drawstring recalls prompted the safety agency to acknowledge the crackdown, which could result in negotiated financial penalties to the companies. The CPSC started taking a harder line on drawstrings with a 2006 letter to those who deal with children's clothing, warning that any garment violating the guidelines would be considered defective.
Still, drawstrings are routinely found by the CPSC on many children's clothing items -- particularly hooded sweatshirts. Well over two dozen strangulation deaths have been reported to the CPSC, including a 3-year-old in California in 2009.
For upper body outerwear -- including jackets and sweatshirts -- the guideline says no drawstrings should be in hoods from size 2T to size 12 for children. Violating that provision is the most common cause for drawstring recalls. Drawstrings are illegal in the European Union, whose consumer agency can unilaterally order the items out of stores.
CPSC officials said they decided to look for drawstring violators and ask companies to purge their inventories of clothing that violates the guidelines.
"During the summer of 2009 we received a mountain of reports from retailers about many different products with drawstrings that they pulled from their shelves," CPSC spokesman Alex Filip said . "It took time for us to sort through all of the products that they reported to determine which were subject to recall."
The so-called Drawstring Enforcement Project lasted from the fall until February and "involved surveillance of over 260 retail stores," Filip told WalletPop.
Among the more disturbing trends he said investigators noticed was that they would warehouse unsold clothing that violated the rules and then bring the items back for sale when they were in-season.
At least a half dozen drawstring-related recalls have been issued in the past couple of weeks and Filip suggested more could be coming,
Four of the past six recalls involved sweatshirts sold at discount retailer Burlington Coat Factory. Company officials insist they are cooperating with the government and ended up with all those recalls because of their own honesty. Most recalls are based on the company reporting its violations to the CPSC.
"The CPSC sends inspectors to stores. They can't hit everybody. They can't hit everything," Burlington Coat Factory general counsel Paul Tang told WalletPop. "We did the responsible thing, we reported it to the CPSC."
He said the CPSC did not do a good job of informing the industry and that once the company started seeing its competitors getting penalized over drawstrings it became apparent the issue was being taken more seriously.
The CPSC's Wolfson said there should be no ambiguity on the issue.
Tang said Burlington Coat Factory is now training its buyers to avoid purchasing more clothing that violates the guidelines.
"We are doing as much as we possibly can to make sure these don't appear again," he said.