Toy Magnet Sellers Feel Repelled by Federal Rulemakers

Buckyballs Photograph by RichardPerry/The New York Times via Redux

Remember Buckyballs? Those are the small, spherical rare-earth magnets marketed as desktop toys by Brooklyn-based Maxfield & Oberton until the end of last year, when its owners closed the company amid a legal dispute with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The government’s beef: Swallowing high-powered magnets can do lots of damage to a kid’s innards.

Closing the company didn’t end the matter. The CPSC still sought a mandatory recall of Buckyballs, as well as products from two additional magnet-set makers, and moved to hold Maxfield & Oberton’s former chief executive officer liable for the costs of a recall, estimated at $57 million.

That’s the backstory to a recent informal complaint by Tim Szeto, chairman of the International Consumer Magnets Association, who criticized the CPSC for excluding businesses that make and sell toy magnets from the process of regulating their products. Specifically, Szeto says that the CPSC didn’t invite them to a hearing held on Tuesday to discuss proposed rules for selling magnet sets.

Szeto is also the founder of Nano Magnetics, which sells magnet sets that resemble Buckyballs. While magnet makers didn’t speak at the rulemaking meeting, a number of consumer advocates who support tighter regulation did, making Tuesday’s hearing “appear to be an invitational gathering of the commissions’ various advocacy groups in an effort to pass the wildly unpopular magnet ban,” Szeto wrote in an e-mail to the CPSC. He also asked for a new hearing on the rules and requested an investigation into how the agency “promoted a ban of consumer magnets.”

That’s unlikely to happen, says CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson, noting that the agency published a notice for the meeting weeks in advance in the Federal Register. Wolfson did add that injuries caused by swallowing two or more high-powered magnets “are like a gunshot wound to the gut with no sign of entry or exit.” As for the proposed rules, they seek to limit the power of magnets sold by companies such as Szeto’s, depending on size.

It’s not hard to understand why Szeto, who didn’t immediately respond to e-mails requesting comment, is complaining. The CPSC has recalled magnetic toys over the years, and it has revised rules about how old kids should be to play with magnets. The case against former Maxfield & Oberton CEO Craig Zucker is the first time the government has moved to hold an executive personally liable for a company’s violations of the Consumer Product Safety Act, according to law firm Gibson Dunn.

Little magnets can be relatively big business. “Two and a half-million adults spent $30 on a product,” Zucker told the Wall Street Journal, regarding Buckyball sales.