Product Recall? Buckyballs Are Dangerous to Swallow

This is why we can’t have nice things. People keep swallowing them.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has requested a recall of the magnetic toys known as Buckyballs and Buckycubes because they pose a serious health hazard to children who ingest them. Buckyballs are small, spherical rare-earth metal magnets—about the size of BB pellets—that can be arranged into fun shapes or mashed into a tangled mess of nothing.

They’re the only product that New York-based company Maxfield & Oberton offers; since the launch in 2009, more than 2.2 million sets have been sold. The company is fighting CPSC’s complaint, claiming that because it markets the toy as a novelty product for adults—and includes several warning labels explaining that the product is dangerous if swallowed and not intended for children under age 14—it shouldn’t have to halt production.

At issue is whether an adult product that frequently falls into the hands of children should be designed to protect kids or if child safety is the responsibility of the parent. In its complaint, CPSC likens Buckyballs to erector sets, hula hoops and silly putty—things that adults occasionally play with, but which are specifically made for children. But Craig Zucker, co-founder and CEO of Maxfield & Oberton says that Buckyballs were never marketed to kids. “Toys ‘R’ Us has been asking for our product for years, but we don’t [sell it there],” he says. In fact, the product was originally conceived as a way to promote co-founder Jake Bronstein’s workplace culture blog, “Our original intention with Buckyballs was to monetize the blog by selling this stress-relieving desk toy,” Zucker explains. “We have never targeted children or toy stores.”

The CPSC’s complaint is just one of many magnet-related recalls that the commission has issued in recent years. In 2006, it recalled Magnetix building sets and Polly Pocket toys because the magnets sometimes fell out and could be ingested. Later, it revised its rules about what age group could buy high-powered magnetic products. Maxfield & Oberton initially labeled Buckyballs as appropriate for ages 13 and up; under the new rules, guidance was changed to 14 and up. The company and the CPSC worked together to change the Buckyballs labels in 2010, and they then collaborated on an educational safety video in 2011. Both parties have described the previous projects as “cooperative and voluntary.”

Even with the new precautions, kids still get their hands on Buckyballs. They do sometimes swallow them. The commission has documented about 20 reports of kids that have eaten Buckyballs since 2009, including a 4-year-old boy who mistook them for cake decorations and a 10-year-old girl who accidentally swallowed them after she’d put them in her mouth and pretended they were a tongue piercing. The labeling changes seem to have had no effect: In its report, the CPSC notes that “warnings are ineffective because parents and caregivers do not appreciate the hazards associated with [them]” and frequently give the product to children anyway. “They’re basically saying that warning labels don’t work,” says Andrew Frank, spokesperson for Maxfield & Oberton. “What about all the household products that have similar warnings? What about things like Tide detergent pods? Do those labels work?”

“There is the issue of personal responsibility, yes,” says Scott Wolfson, director of communications for the CPSC, “but there’s also the issue of protecting the safety of children.” Wolfson says that because accidents have continued to occur, “too many children are getting exposed to the product and are at risk of a very, very serious injury. So we’ve asked them to do a stop sale.”

Maxfield & Oberton refuses to comply with the CPSC’s request, saying that to do so would effectively put the company out of business. This is the first time in 11 years that the CPSC has had a recall refused; the last company to do so was Daisy Manufacturing, which in 2001 declined to recall 7.3 million BB guns. (The case was later settled when Daisy agreed to put more prominent safety warnings on the guns.)

Since the commission issued its complaint, Web sales of Buckyballs have increased “fifty-fold,” according to Zucker. People are ordering the product in droves, he says, just in case the company has to fold. If that happens, procrastinating office workers will have to find another, child-friendlier way to amuse themselves in the office. I wonder how the CPSC feels about people who stab things with letter openers.

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