The small, strong magnetic blocks are marketed for grownups only, something to fiddle with at the office, but they're proving irresistible to kids, and have caused a string of serious injuries. So how do you protect children from something that isn't intended as a kids' toy?
Several years ago, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) raised a public alarm about the dangers posed to youngsters from magnetic toys. Kids, and not just babies, but those “old enough to know better” were known to have swallowed pieces of the popular desk-top accessory.
The magnets bunch together in the gastrointestinal tract, twisting or pinching the intestines, causing blockages, perforation or infection that can require surgery. Some kids have died.
Late last year, the CPSC ratcheted up its warning. “An increasing number of incident reports to the … CPSC indicate that high-powered magnets continue to be a safety risk to children,” its report said. “From toddlers to teens, children are swallowing these magnets and the consequences are severe.” The agency got one incident report in 2009, seven in 2010 and 14 through October 2011. They involved children from 18 months to 15 years old; 17 involved magnet ingestion and 11 required surgical removal. “When a magnet has to be removed surgically,” the agency said, “it often requires the repair of the child's damaged stomach and intestines.”
According to Reuters, the commission has received more than a dozen reports since then of children ingesting the magnets. Many required surgery.
So last month the CPSC effectively said, “Enough,” and ordered a halt to sale of Buckyballs and Buckycubes magnetic toys, deeming them a serious hazard. It was the commission’s first stop-sale order in 11 years.
The commission ordered distributor Maxfield & Oberton Holdings to halt sales because injuries to children who had swallowed them were on the rise. “[W]arnings are ineffective,” the CPSC said.
Maxfield & Oberton must stop importing and distributing the Chinese-made magnets. They also must issue refunds, according to the complaint, and direct retailers to stop distributing the toys.
More than 2 million Buckyballs and at least 200,000 Buckycubes have been sold in the U.S.
According to AboutLawsuits.com, Maxfield & Oberton and the commission had negotiated a Buckyball recall in May 2010 as a result of labels that read for “Ages 13+”; the commission said federal toy standards for powerful loose magnets may not be sold to children younger than 14. And in November, Maxfield & Oberton and the CPSC created an educational campaign to inform consumers that the magnets were intended only for adults.
In June, a report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics added fuel to the swallowed-magnet fire. It reinforced the need for medical practitioners and parents to understand the dangers of magnet toys. And last month, Battat Inc., manufacturer of the Magnabild Magnetic Building Sets, was fined $400,000 for allegedly failing to report problems with its magnetic toys, which were blamed for the death of at least one child.
This month, in only its second such action in 11 years, the CPSC filed an administrative complaint against Zen Magnets LLC, alleging that its products contain defects in the design, packaging, warnings and instructions, and pose a substantial risk of injury to the public.
The lawsuit seeks to stop the firm from selling Zen Magnets Rare Earth Magnet Balls, notify the public of the defect and offer consumers a full refund.
Eleven manufacturers and/or importers of sets of small, powerful, individual magnets voluntarily have agreed to the CPSC request to stop their manufacture, import, distribution and sale. Zen Magnets and Maxfield & Oberton are the only companies that have refused to comply, to date.
As noted by the Associated Press, attempting to remove a product from the market is a rare move for the CPSC, which prefers to work cooperatively with companies to stop the sale of hazardous products.
The commission's aggressive action raises questions about governmental authority to stop companies from selling products that, if used properly, are safe and legal. The Zen Magnets website posted this objection: "How much societal damage results from the slippery slope of absolving parents from the responsibility to read warnings?"
It’s a fair point. But it’s also clear that these products are unusually unsafe. Until they are removed from the market, the CPSC advises parents who suspect that their child has swallowed magnets:
Seek immediate medical attention.
Watch for these symptoms—abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Remember that in X-rays, multiple magnetic pieces may appear as a single object.
Before buying toys, see our checklist for toy safety.
If you want to report a dangerous product or a product-related injury, call the CPSC’s hotline at (800) 638-2772 or go online to SaferProducts.gov. Additional consumer product safety information is available here, and you can join an e-mail subscription list for recalls, hazardous product notices, etc., here.