Call it a bounce house, moon walk or jump house, but the safety of the block party staple has come under fire. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics reported that the number of bounce house injuries among children nationwide increased fifteenfold from 1995 to 2010.
But even more remarkable, said researcher Dr. Gary Smith, is that the number of injuries doubled between 2008 and 2010. Nationally in 2010, one child was injured every 46 minutes in a bounce house.
"If you think of the curve, it's almost like it's just taking off," said Smith, a pediatrician who specializes in the prevention of injuries in children and adolescents. "And when we see that kind of shape of a curve in the area of public health, we consider that to be an epidemic."
Smith, president of the Child Injury Prevention Alliance in Columbus, Ohio, thinks the spike in injuries is linked to increased use. Though researchers have yet to prove that hunch with numbers, Smith said that his team didn't find any other factors that could contribute to the increase.
"We don't have any information to suggest that parents are taking children to the emergency room more quickly," Smith said. Nor have bouncers necessarily become more dangerous, he said.
"We're left thinking, simply, (that) children are using these bouncers more than they were in the past," he said.
That might be due to an increased number of bounce house rental companies, said Matthew Mark, executive director of the Detroit-based Safe Inflatable Operators Training Organization, a voluntary association that trains those who work in the industry nationwide.
Bounce houses have become much less expensive than they once were, so people who want to start a rental business face fewer startup costs, he said.
That can be attractive during a sputtering economy, said Bill Meyer, vice president at Melrose Park-based AMJ Spectacular Events, which rents out bounce houses.
Someone could "buy a Chinese moon jump for $1,000 or $1,200, and rent it on a Saturday and Sunday from $130 to $240 per day," Meyer said of others in the industry. "That's a nice little income, and it's not that difficult. You drop them off in the morning and you pick them up at night."
But those cheaper bounce houses don't necessarily translate to quality or safety, some say.
"You can see a very distinct difference between a U.S.-manufactured inflatable unit versus a mass-produced, offshore-produced inflatable unit," Mark said.
Mark recommends that anyone wanting to buy an inflatable for backyard use avoid mass-market inflatables because they don't meet commercial standards and "are more prone to failure than commercial units."
For those planning to rent from a company, they need to verify that the company holds insurance and that the workers have been properly trained, Mark emphasized.
That's not as easy as it may sound in Illinois, which Mark described as "really unregulated" compared with states like New Jersey that require operators to be trained for each type of inflatable that the company uses. Safety training for private rental companies is voluntary in Illinois and has been spearheaded by organizations like Mark's.
Since there are no national regulations, safety standards for bounce houses differ from state to state, said Scott Wolfson, director of communications at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Wolfson said that ASTM International, an umbrella group that provides safety standards for various products, does set guidelines for bounce houses.
Wolfson said under the Consumer Product Safety Act, the commission can't pursue regulatory rule-making if there is an adequate voluntary standard in place, such as ASTM International's.
Though private rental companies in Illinois are largely unregulated, those that operate in what are deemed public areas, such as state fairs or at indoor amusement parks, are monitored by the Illinois Department of Labor, which inspects the inflatables once a year and requires operators be trained according to ASTM International's guidelines.
But regardless of standards, parents should use common sense when it comes to bounce house safety, operators said. They recommend looking for trained operators who hold insurance, not mixing age groups of jumpers and not allowing more children inside the bounce house than recommended.
The Child Injury Prevention Alliance recommends that only children over 6 be allowed on a bouncer and that, ideally, only one child should use it at a time.
"Some people think of it as a baby sitter, but that's not how it should be," said Olga Gomez, manager at Chicago MoonWalks. "There should be adult supervision at all times."
Glen Kohn, the father of two 31/2-year-old twins, said that he always follows that advice.
"I worry more about the age of the kids that are with them," Kohn said, explaining that his "biggest fear" was that his children could be trampled by older kids.
Kohn hadn't heard of the Pediatrics bounce house safety study but said that he wasn't surprised by its findings.
"I don't particularly find (bounce houses) incredibly safe," Kohn said, "but they're fine with the correct supervision."
Experts seem to agree.
"Some of the groups out there say, 'Oh my goodness, these are so unbelievably dangerous,'" Mark said. "Can they be? Yes. Inherently? No. Are there methods and measures people can take to make them safer? Absolutely."
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