Last year, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a safety warning about Buckyballs, the high-powered magnetic desktop toys for adults that many young children also find irresistible. Kids end up swallowing the tiny magnets, which can then cluster together and get stuck in the gastrointestinal tract, causing blockage or infection or punching holes through the stomach or intestinal walls.
Even after the safety warning, the CPSC received reports of more than a dozen children swallowing the superstrong magnets; many needed surgery to remove them. Since 2009, when Buckyballs were first introduced, dozens more children and teens have been harmed by ingesting the product. Young children often come across loose magnets left within their reach, on refrigerators, sofas or the floor, for instance — it’s hard for parents to tell when a few tiny pieces are missing from a typical set of 200 — while older kids sometimes use the ball-bearing-type magnets to mimic tongue, nose or cheek piercings and accidentally swallow them.
In a Jan. 2011 case cited by the CSPC, a 4-year-old boy swallowed three Buckyballs magnets “he thought were chocolate candy because they looked like the decorations on his mother’s wedding cake.” The boy suffered perforated intestines.
The safety commission says Buckyballs’ maker, New York City-based Maxfield and Oberton, has refused to recall the products. On Wednesday, the CPSC filed an administrative complaint [PDF] against the company, seeking to stop the sale of Buckyballs and Buckycubes.
“We are deeply disappointed that the CPSC has decided to go after our firm — and magnets in general,” said Craig Zucker, CEO of Maxfield and Oberton, in a company statement. “We find it unfair, unjust and un-American.”
Zucker notes that Buckyballs are marketed exclusively to adults and teenagers age 14 and older and that the company developed a public-awareness campaign about the product’s risks in cooperation with CPSC. The product also carries several warning labels on each box and in the accompanying instructions, cautioning that it is not a toy intended for children.
However, the CPSC contends in its suit that the warnings are ineffective because the magnets are not typically put back into their packaging once they’re removed. The magnets pose a substantial risk of injury, especially to kids, the CPSC argues, because their small size, shiny coating and the unique snapping sound they make when manipulated are “intensely appealing to children.” Given that the packaging itself isn’t child-proof, and that users are unlikely to return Buckyballs or Buckycubes to the box regardless of its design — the products are marketed as a desktop stress-relief toy and usually remain unboxed — the safety commission calls for a ban on sales and distribution and refunds to consumers.
“We will vigorously fight this action,” Zucker said.
The agency offers tips and advice on how to prevent magnet ingestion and what to do if you think your child has swallowed magnets:
- Keep small magnets away from young children who might swallow the
- Look out for loose magnet pieces, and regularly inspect toys and children’s play areas for missing or dislodged magnets
- If you suspect that magnets have been swallowed, seek medical attention immediately
- Look for abdominal symptoms, such as abdominal pains, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
- Note that in X rays multiple magnetic pieces may appear as a single object