CPSC Busting Buckyballs

CPSC Busting Buckyballs

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is busting balls. To be more exact they have decided to go after Maxfield & Oberton, the maker of an ADULT DESK TOY called BUCKYBALLS.

What makes the CPSC actions so egregious, though, is that they are going after a company that by all accounts has been a responsible partner doing everything in their power to ensure their product is sold strictly to its intended market as well as educating its consumers.

The CPSC, meanwhile, has had a history of allowing toxic and unsafe children’s products enter the United States from companies that, well let’s just say that couldn’t give a damn of what they are selling here or the damage they have inflicted upon unsuspecting children.

Seems to me that this is a classic example of where government regulation fails the system and discourages free enterprise.

Now to be perfectly clear here – Buckyballs in the wrong hands can be dangerous. They are powerful magnets that can harm children (or adults for that matter) if swallowed. But that is exactly why Maxfield and Oberton have put no less than FIVE WARNINGS on their product packaging in addition to taking a proactive position in educating consumers on magnetic products.

As a former a design engineer I am impressed with the level of attention given this product. Especially since there have been occasions in my own employment history where a few business owners valued profit over quality or safety. Sadly these type of people exist and consumers must remain vigilant. As they say – Buyer Beware!

As for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, yes I believe that they have a role in safeguarding consumers. However, what people don’t realize is that they are woefully understaffed and can in no way keep up with the influx of product. As such, they need to work smarter rather than going after companies that have exhibited a willingness to go above and beyond the prevailing compliance standards.

Trust me – it is much rarer than you think when it comes to companies going above and beyond the minimum.

As for products the CPSC might want to look at before aiming their sights on Buckyballs  – Geekmom has a few items for them to consider.


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  • I know it’s easy to think this action by CPSC might be going too far and start making jokes about what else might be banned, but first consider the facts of the situation – not what this recalcitrant company would have you believe:

    Before a young boy named Kenny died in Washington State in 2005, no one thought about the dangers of small magnets – toy makers had put them in a variety of construction toys and play sets for children as young as four. Kenny’s older sisters and brothers had one of those construction sets – unbeknownst to them, the tiny magnets were falling out and onto the carpeted floor. Kenny, a curious toddler, picked up the tiny magnets no one else saw and ate them. Over time, they connected in his intestines, squeezing the tissue between them tightly – causing necrosis and blocking his intestines. He died in the hospital on Thanksgiving Day. After his death, more horrific stories came to light, although thankfully, no other deaths. Toymakers changed the voluntary toy standard to prohibit the use of small magnets or magnetic parts in toys for children under 14. That standard became mandatory in 2009.

    So Maxfield and Oberton took their non-age graded toy, Buckyballs, and slapped a 13+ label on it (math must not be their strong suit). They had to recall those and re-label with a 14+ label. But the company did little to change how the desk toys were sold – continuing to offer them in stores whose clientele were younger than the age grading. CPSC got them to add warnings and issued a general warning – but the injuries kept coming. Maxfield and Oberton refused to do more – leaving CPSC to take a step they hadn’t in 11 years – suing to get the company to recall the product. Consider this:

    • Age grading is just a guide – these aren’t like cigarettes that can’t be sold to those underage – it is just a label on the box – it doesn’t beholden any retailer or manufacturer to sell to those over that age.
    • The Maxfield and Oberton warning is weak. It fails to alert parents and children to the seriousness of the injuries if multiple magnets are swallowed.
    • The injury hazard in magnets is non-intuitive. The usual course of action for children swallowing objects is to allow it to pass through the system. Waiting for that with magnets can lead to serious injury and death.
    • In a recent KID report on CPSC data, we found that 45% of those swallowing these bb-style magnets required surgery. Many of those will have life-long effects from the injury and surgery.
    • Emergency room doctors have compared the way these powerful magnets crush and rip through intestines to the damage they see from bullet shots.
    • These are not objects that only appeal to very young children for whom the small parts test is applied. Many of those injured are older children or young teens who use the strong magnets to mimic piercings. The unanticipated movement of magnetic objects causes them to be swallowed or inhaled. They are unlikely to immediately report this to parents since the object causes no discomfort while being swallowed.

    This action by CPSC was taken to address a serious risk of harm. It will not ‘outlaw’ all magnets. It does not take the place of parental supervision or common sense. It is simply a well-used instrument to address a particular hazard in a specific product when the manufacturer has been unwilling to take action themselves. KID has joined with Consumer Federation of America and the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition in supporting this action. The doctors of NASPGHN were among the first to raise the alarm based on what they were seeing in their patients, “Many of our member physicians have spent hours removing these high powered neodymium magnets from the stomach of innocent infants and children to reduce the risk of abdominal surgery. In spite of warnings by companies, there
    is no effective way to keep these tiny, shiny "adult toys" out of the reach of children. If they stay on the market, infants and children will continue to swallow these magnets, and intestinal damage requiring surgery will continue to occur.”

  • In reply to Kids In Danger:

    Nancy Thank You for your insight on this important matter. I am also very glad that you made sure to say that nothing will alleviate the burden of a parents role in supervising their children or that common sense needs to be a part of the equation.

    I acknowledge that magnets are dangerous and said that - but I have a real problem with the CPSC who have been notoriously lax in their mission. Of course much of this has to do with the fact that Congress has seen fit that they remain understaffed and underfunded.

    The way I see it, maybe taxpayers and voters should be contacting their legislators to ensure that toy standards and regulations can be properly policed and remove "self-compliance" as an option.

    As a parent who raised his child, I can assure you that toy safety has always been at the forefront. As a retired plastics engineer I know first hand the dangers of carcinogenic and other toxic materials used by manufacturers in the production of all sorts of consumer products. It appalls me! Never the less, the best thing a parent can do is to research the products they buy for their children and/or themselves.

    Over regulation is not the answer because the special interests will just find a way to get around it. As for Buckyballs, yes their product can pose a danger but they have complied and worked with the CPSC on a campaign to educate consumers. So I don't think that constitutes as ignoring the problem.

    You also forget that retailers can indeed be be held accountable and liable - much in the same way as when sniffing model airplane glue became a national crisis and removed from shelves.

    In the end, I understand exactly where you are coming from but I will respectfully agree to disagree because government regulation is not the answer nor is it a substitute for a parents obligations to supervise their children and/or use common sense in selecting age appropriate toys.

    Magnets and their dangers are not a new phenomena so it is not like the information is not out there. In fact data is readily available for anyone who chooses to take the time to research it. Even on Maxfield & Olberton's website.

    BTW Geekmom's concerns are every bit as valid as these magnets.

  • In reply to Kids In Danger:


    I, like many other millions of people in this world including yourself, made it through infancy and childhood because common sense and intuition kicked in and our tiny brains were able to differentiate between food and metallic objects. Poor Kenny, and many other poor children like him, didn't retain this higher functioning potential, and coupled with an apparent lack of parenting, ultimately resulted in poor Kenny's demise.

    Whether its a "BuckyBall" or not is irrelevant. Lower functioning (and I don't mean disabled) children will always need special attention and discerning parents to oversee their activities, monitor their behavior, and ensure proper mannerisms and behavior are instilled in the child early and often.

    Fact: the "Kenny's" of this world will always find something to shove in their mouths, choke on it, and or swallow it and either suffer injury or death.


  • In reply to danboy:

    I think that one distinction, certainly from when I was a child, and probably from when you were, is that refrigerator magnets were regular magnets and usually not bite sized.

    The new thing with BuckyBalls is that they are rare earth magnets. From my understanding, rare earth magnets are in scarce supply, because they are necessary for hybrid drives and electronics, and the Chinese have a near monopoly on rare earth mining, which they are using against us.

    My initial tendency was to debate Mike on whether the warnings were sufficient under product liability law, but I don't have enough background to come to a conclusion in this case.

    However, I do have the feeling that the cost and risk is not worth having this "adult toy," even if it takes a dumbo parent to leave it around a baby. And, if the parent is that dumb, I don't think you can blame the child for having access to it.

  • In reply to jack:

    Jack thanks for input on rare earth magnets. Interesting. Product Liability Laws get hazy some times, especially with the CPSC. Many companies use more stringent "outside" standards in consumer products. TUV, for instance, was one my firm had to comply (and other standards) with on health club equipment. "Pinch Points" (mainly for children hanging around parents using in-home equipment) on Adjustable Height Treadmills was a big deal. Point is - consumer products have multiple agency compliance requirements and most companies strive to adhere. Yeah there are those off-shore ones that short-circuit the standards or outright fraudulently place agency compliance stickers on their products. Most though are diligent in their attempts to limit their liabilities with reliable standards. And that comes from experience my friend.

  • In reply to Michael Ciric:

    Product liability law itself it pretty consistent; the only question raised with regard to it by your post is since both "defective product" and "failure to warn" theories exist, whether the warnings overcome the danger in the product. Sort of similar to a power mower having all sorts of warnings, but you wouldn't let a 2 year old use it. Or the pulley machine in the health club having a sticker saying "Failure to comply may result in DEATH." In Chris Benoit's case, it did, because he used one to hang himself, but that doesn't result in either liability or the machines being banned.

    Then one can get into the law and economics debate whether liability is a sufficient deterrent, or government regulation is necessary. I remember my sister, who works in the medical device industry, once complaining about the FDA, but my response was "how many lawsuits and recalls your company has?" She no longer works for that company, but that company still has recalls. But, as I indicated, I don't have the background to figure out if CPSC is overreaching or even just not using its resources properly in this case.

  • In reply to jack:

    I hear you Jack. Sometime companies even calculate if it is cheaper to defend lawsuits and/or payout instead of more due diligence. CPSC isn't a bad idea, though. The problem seems to be more about under-funding / under-staffing which forces them to be reactionary as opposed to pro-active on many fronts. But hey, that isn't anything new. Congress likes building bureaucracies but don't like to fund them. So what do we get? Illusions that government cares but really what we have are smoke and mirrors.

  • In reply to danboy:

    Dan I believe you hit the nail on the head. My wife and I talked about this at length and recalled how we handled the "Magnetex", "Legos," "Transformers," etc., etc, etc.. Hell we went through them all. And not only did we have to make sure our children understood how to correctly play with them, but correctly clean up after themselves because we also had a curious cat who could have swallowed a toy. We were diligent and vigilant in our supervision, we stored them safely so children and pets were not harmed, etc.. I believe parents have a responsibility. Yes, accidents happen and my heart aches for any child lost needlessly. Jack made a good point in that as kids we had magnets but they were bigger and less dangerous. I also agreed with the first commenter that these toys are dangerous in the wrong hands - but so are many other things. I mean what are we gonna do? Regulate everything and relieve the burden of parenting from those who probably shouldn't have had kids in the first place?

    Point is this company did everything asked of it by the CPSC. Consumers, on the other hand, will ultimately decide what they will or won't buy anyhow.

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    In reply to Kids In Danger:

    I am the CEO of Maxfield and Oberton, the maker of Buckyballs. Our company respects the opinion and commitment of Kids in Danger (minus the part about math not being our strong suit) and the CPSC. We've posted a pseudo-response to this post as well as our history of workings with the Commission here: http://www.getbuckyballs.com/letter-from-ceo/.

    Contrary to this post, we did everything CPSC asked of us and much more over over our three year relationship. In fact, we proposed even more in a voluntary Corrective Action Plan on July 24th, 2012. The Commission did not even respond to this plan before suing us the next morning.

    Our first and only refusal to CPSC was to go out of business.

    We share the same commitment as KID, CFA, and the CPSC in keeping our products out of children's hands and preventing misuse. To achieve this, we've implemented a comprehensive safety program unmatched in our industry and most others. But, we do not believe that taking away responsible adults choice to purchase our products is the right way to regulate high-powered magnets.

    I hope after reading this letter, you have a better understanding of our commitment to safety and why we're fighting to stay in business.

    Craig Zucker

  • In reply to Craig Zucker:

    Thanks for your comments;

    One thing though, you say contrary to this post - -

    Actually I noted that your firm did everything asked of it by the CPSC and appeared to be a responsible partner.

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    This is a deeply disturbing story. Any product, if abused and used in a manner inconsistent with its purpose, can be dangerous. How is it possible to sell steak knives if we are going to say that Buckeyballs are too dangerous to sell. We have to face up to the fact that we have a bad Federal Government. A Federal Government that acts badly, capriciously, and destructively. And we had better do something about it before the Government, with its new warrior cops, does something about us. Electing libertarian (small "L") candidates for every elective office is the answer.

  • In reply to Corey Overhiser:

    Corey Thanks for your comment. And yes ANY PRODUCT can be dangerous and as such there should be a level of supervision on the part of parents with their toys and adults should use due diligence with their toys. Of course I get the uproar too; these are highly magnetized items and if ingested will do harm without a doubt. Retailers and parents must do their part with any toy to insure that that product is not sold and or used by those who shouldn't. Naturally that doesn't always work that way in real life. So I am not unsympathetic but as you point out anything can be made or deemed dangerous - so where is the line to be drawn? I won't knock the CPSC though as they have a necessary function but I am not in favor of having government present in every aspect of our lives either.

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