Last year, Stull Technologies devoted considerable hours and sweat gaining provisional patents for a child-resistant closure for household containers.
Then came Sept. 11. Development was pushed aside while the world recovered.
But Stull's world changed again in October 2001, when the Consumer Product Safety Commission released an 80-page report that immediately put the project back on the front burner.
``What we had worked on before Sept. 11 was kind of a fire drill for what we had to do as soon as the new ruling came down,'' said Jameson Stull, manager of sales engineering for the Somerset, N.J.-based injection molder.
Stull has pushed the development envelope for a significant reason: The CPSC had thrown closure makers a curve, mandating child-resistant closures for many common household and personal-care goods.
The family-owned company had spent close to two years designing a new closure for household and cosmetic containers. The work extended into April as the product went through rigorous protocol testing by an independent agency.
That verification was a must to meet the new CPSC guidelines.
The government impetus started with a quintuplet of tragedies. From 1993 until October 2001, five children, all under 5 years old, lost their lives after swallowing household products and then inhaling the chemicals into their lungs, said Ken Giles, spokesman for Washington-based CPSC.
After the Oprah Winfrey Show devoted a program to the topic last fall, consumer awareness gelled, and so did customer pressure.
The main culprits were the hydrocarbons in such common products as baby oils, sunscreens, bath and body oils, hair oils, nail-enamel drying agents, makeup removers, gasoline additives, spot removers, household cleaners, and some water repellents for decks, shoes or sports equipment, according to the CPSC.
CPSC data from 1997-99 showed that about 6,400 children who ingested those products visited emergency rooms. Some suffered permanent lung damage, Giles said.
``Once the hydrocarbon gets in the lungs, it's impossible to get it out,'' Giles said. ``There's nothing human beings can do to stop the pneumonialike condition it causes. And you can't expect kids under 5 to make distinctions or read labels or do anything other than put a product into their mouths.''
CPSC voted unanimously to require child-resistant packaging for those oil-based products. Products affected by the ruling are those that contain 10 percent or more hydrocarbons by weight and that use a low-viscosity, thin liquid.
The CPSC ruling took effect Oct. 25, a year after it passed. All new products that fit those guidelines must have child-resistant closures, Giles said. However, those products now on store shelves or that were shipped before Oct. 25 are exempt from the ruling, he added.
That has afforded closure manufacturers some time to come up with permanent solutions. Nancy Kane, marketing coordinator of the Zeller Plastik closures division of Philadelphia-based Crown, Cork & Seal Co., said her company is offering off-the-shelf products until it has time to develop a closure more strongly identified with customers' products.
``We're never fully prepared until something happens like a CPSC ruling,'' Kane said. ``The off-the-shelf products offered by a lot of companies are Band-Aids, until we learn how the closures should be made and what has the most effect.''
Some customers are reformulating their products, making them more viscous or with less hydrocarbon content, to avoid the regulations, said Ken Corbett, industry manager for personal-care and automotive closures and pumps with Toledo, Ohio-based Owens-Illinois Inc.
But many others would rather the package be changed, added Ed McKinley, O-I manager of regulatory affairs.
``On the personal-care side especially, some customers can't change the formula,'' McKinley said. ``They have to use a child-resistant closure. And they want to use the closure to sell the product.''
That has given some closure suppliers pause. Many end users for household and cosmetic items currently do not use child-resistant closures, Corbett said.
``We think this catapults us into the forefront, with our 35 years of [closure] industry experience,'' said Tom Shields, O-I industry manager for health-care closures.
Getting there, though, is not a quick catapult to success. The key is designing an overcap that meets the kid-proof requirement and can pass muster in protocol testing, where focus groups of both youngsters and senior citizens attempt to open the containers.
For small children, the bottle must be an impenetrable fortress. But for seniors, that same product must be easily opened, even by arthritic or palsied fingers.
The closures face another challenge. Unlike the health-care market, where child-resistant closures have been standard for years, aesthetics is more important than safety in personal-care items, according to Shields.
``What you've got there is an industry that relies heavily on packaging for a large percentage of sales,'' Shields said. ``When you're selling pharmaceuticals, the package is just a medium to convey the product to the market. In personal care, you don't want your package to look like a chemical container or a bottle of Maalox.''
Unfortunately, many of the child-resistant products on the market today have a bulky appearance that limits their use for suntan oils and baby lotions, said Jason Stull, marketing and business development manager at Stull Technologies.
That complicates development work that must take place now, said Mark Fricke, vice president of product development and research with closure producer Kerr Group Inc. in Lancaster, Pa.
``On most shampoo bottles, you just lift the cap up and squeeze the bottle,'' Fricke said. ``It gives dispensing convenience but doesn't achieve all the [CPSC] objectives. A lot of people are working on prototypes, but not a lot of new child-resistant closures are widely available now.''
Several companies have spent time in development labs working on permanent solutions that meet CPSC guidelines and do not detract from a bottle's shelf appeal.
Stull Technologies spent about 18 months developing an innovative and unobtrusive design that passes the strict requirements, Jameson Stull said.
The company's answer is called StullSure, a one-piece, flip-top cap that never is removed from the bottle. The cap automatically locks when closed and contains a sealing peg that prevents the liquid from leaking, according to Stull.
Opening the cap requires a user to pull a center locking peg forward while simultaneously flipping the can open, an advanced maneuver for any preschooler, he said.
Several customers are testing the product, one of the first for household and personal-care products on the U.S. market. A major hurdle was passing protocol testing, performed by an independent agency licensed by the government.
Getting through those tests was no easy matter. About 150 tests were performed, some on children under age 5 and some on senior citizens. To meet regulations, the closure must prevent at least 85 percent of children tested from opening the cap within five minutes, 90 percent of tested seniors must be able to open the cap to pass the same tests, Jason Stull said.
The company did far better, with close to all the children tested unable to open the cap, he said.
``It's a major concern of consumers and companies since last October,'' he said. ``I can't tell you how many meetings we've had with customers worried where to go next and what they'll be able to do. They wanted something done on time that would not sacrifice the aesthetics of their packaging.''
Owens-Illinois also is considering a one-piece, child-resistant closure, Corbett said. The company has launched a new cap for gas additives that integrates that closure with a bottle, he said. The closure allows consumers to squeeze the cap and turn it to open the bottle, he said.
While O-I tests possibilities, the company has offered customers stock child-resistant closures used with its other products, Corbett said. The company has 21 product offerings, many coming in two pieces, that meet CPSC standards, Corbett said.
``The real race is going on here to move to one-piece, child-resistant closures,'' Corbett said. ``The bottle and the closure must be married together.''
Yet another issue is price, Kane said. A two-piece product requires two sets of molds and assemblies, while a one-piece closure requires complex tooling and design, she said. Either way, customers cannot hike a product's price considerably to pay for a new closure, she said.
That issue generates about as much debate as did the CPSC ruling that started the ball rolling. In its statement supporting the new rule, the agency estimated that a child-resistant closure would cost between half a penny and 2 cents more per package.
But others wonder about that estimate. While the mold-making end can be done fairly economically, designing a new part and taking it through outside testing can be pricey, said Andy Edlund, vice president of sales and marketing for closure toolmaker Marland Mold Inc. of Pittsfield, Mass.
The question becomes, who pays for the new closure - the supplier or the customer, Edlund said.
``It fits into the age-old dilemma: Customers want all the features but don't want to pay for them,'' Edlund said.