Bounce houses: Child's play or safety hazard?

The sound will bring kids running faster than the ice cream truck.  Blow up a bounce house and they can unleash their boundless energy.  These days kids can jump at home, with inflatables for sale at many stores.  They're so popular you'll also find them everywhere from baseball games to strip malls. 

But with all that bouncing, you're bound to have some accidents.  Howard County's Brianna Linton knows it can happen.  The 12-year-old broke her wrist in a bounce house accident four years ago.  She says, "I just remember being in a hospital and having to take a shot."

The 12-year-old is now back to taking shots on the court after undergoing surgery at Union Memorial to repair her fracture.  Her father, Robert Linton, works as an emergency room physician at the hospital.  And he knew Brianna was hurt with just one sound, her scream.  He says, "I could tell by the way she screamed.  I've never heard that before."

INTERACTIVE | Bounce house safety

Linton says he's grown familiar with bounce house injuries from his time in the ER at Union Memorial.  Over the years he says he's treated a few concussions and broken bones kids have gotten in bounce houses.  But he had no idea so many were getting hurt, saying, "Overall I assumed because these things are available out to the public that they were overall pretty safe."

But a study released late last year in the journal Pediatrics shows that's not the case.  Tracy Mehan, who was part of the research team that put together the study says, "We suspected the number of injuries had been increasing but we had no idea it was this dramatic."

Mehan, who works for the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Ohio says the inflatable injury numbers reflect an epidemic.  Her team looked at kids treated in emergency rooms for bounce house injuries.  Between 1995 and 2010, the numbers spiked 1500% with more than 60,000 kids sent to the ER nationwide, many of them with broken bones and injuries to the head and neck.

In 2010 alone, the numbers reflect as many as 30 kids a day being taken to the emergency room, according to Mehan, who says, "No one really knew the magnitude of the problem.  Now that we know the alarming increase that is happening, it's time to take action."

The Center for Injury Research and Policy is calling on the Consumer Product Safety Commission to create nationwide guidelines and recommendations for bounce houses and other inflatables.  Right now, there aren't any national guidelines. 

Instead, the CPSC points to industry standards set by international group ASTM , which sets thousands of accepted standards for products ranging from crayons to lifeboats.  Jim Seay, President of Baltimore-based Premier Rides , chairs the ASTM committee that oversees standards created for the inflatable industry.  He says, "I think the bounce house industry has a lot of people who are extremely passionate about safety." 

ASTM Committee F-24 has developed standards for how inflatables should be made and used with the help of industry reps, consumers and manufacturers.  The committee meets at least twice a year to adapt standards as trends change, but their standards are a baseline, not a requirement, for the states that choose to use them.  Rob Gavel, Supervisor for Amusement Ride Safety with Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation says, "Many states have no regulation at all.  They do not consider a moon bounce an amusement attraction."

But Maryland does see inflatables as an attraction.  Bounce houses that are open to the public, in a county fair or strip mall for example, are regulated and inspected by DLLR on an annual basis.  Gavel says 213 registered businesses with more than 3,200 inflatables are on their radar for yearly inspections and spot checks.  A bounce house that's regulated has to display its certification for you to view. 

Owners get those certificates after inspections done by a team of eight DLLR inspectors.  They make sure rules that govern everything from supervision to staking down the inflatables are followed.  He tells ABC2, "It's about trying to ensure the public's safety as best we can and in order to do that we want to be out there, eyes on, making sure people are complying."

REPORT | How do you find a reputable bounce house company?

The end result, according to DLLR, is fewer accidents.  Gavel says there have been only two reported in the last five years, with minor injuries.  But that's only reported injuries on the bounce houses the state tracks.  The trouble, experts say, is no one's watching hundreds of others used legally in Maryland and in other states.  Inflatables used for private events and parties are not on their radar.  Gavel says, "That's the defining line in Maryland, public versus private."

That line means bounce houses rented out for birthday parties and similar events get no regulation, no inspection and no monitoring, even though they're used in

the same way by the same kids.  Instead, it's up to the owner to make sure they're safe.

Paul Swisher owns Perry Hall Moonbounce , a company that rents out inflatables for private events.  He says, "You've really got to be more vigilant."  Swisher believes the reputation of his company relies on parties being fun and safe for kids, that's why he's made safety a priority.  He says he requires renters to sign two agreements that outline guidelines.  Then he personally handles the set-up of the inflatables so they're properly installed.  And once the moon bounces are in place, he goes over safety with the parents hosting the party, saying, "I think that's really going to differentiate my service from the other moon bounce companies."

Swisher says he'd support more regulation for private companies to weed out bad apples who need to be watched when kids' safety is at risk.  Even then, he says it's ultimately up to you to police your children, right from the jump, telling us, "If your kids can't follow the rules then they just can't bounce.  It's pretty simple."

The Consumer Product Safety Commission agrees about the need for parental involvement.  Although the agency sends a member to the ASTM F-24 committee meetings, they've taken no official stance on guidelines for inflatables.  Scott Wolfson, Communications Director for the CPSC, sent us this statement on the issue,  "Whether it is at a local fair or a backyard birthday party, CPSC wants children to stay safe in and around bounce houses.  They can be fun for kids, but if not anchored properly and not functioning properly, then incidents and injuries can occur.  CPSC recommends that young children not be placed inside of a bounce house with older, bigger children.  Consumers should report to us on SaferProducts.gov, if there is an incident with a bounce house that had the potential to hurt a child or resulted in a child getting hurt."

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