The July 27, 2012 news item by Gary Thomas on Azonano highlights a legal suit involving Maxfield & Obertontoys that happen to be called Buckyballs and Buckycubes. From the news item,
The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has filed a complaint against New York based Maxfield & Oberton Holdings LLC over their Buckyballs and Buckycube desk toys subsequent to a 3-1 Commission vote approving the filing of complaint.
The complaint seeks an order on the firm to prohibit sale of Buckyballs and Buckycubes, to inform the public about the defect and also refund the consumers in full for purchases made. …
Despite cooperative efforts by CPSC and Maxfield & Oberton to educate buyers that the products are meant for adults, reports of swallowing incidents and injuries kept coming in.
Before I go further, here’s what the toy looks like,
The problem is that the small spherical magnets contain rare earths and are being swallowed by children and teenagers resulting in serious injury. I found more details about the situation in the July 25, 2012 news release issued by the CPSC (Note: I have removed some links) ,
In May 2010, CPSC and Maxfield & Oberton announced a cooperative recall of about 175,000 Buckyball high powered magnets sets, because they were labeled “Ages 13+” and did not meet the federal mandatory toy standard, F963-08. The standard requires that such powerful loose as received magnets not be sold for children younger than 14.
The Buckyballs and Buckycubes sets contain up to 216 powerful rare earth magnets.
In November 2011, CPSC and Maxfield & Oberton worked cooperatively to inform and educate consumers that Buckyballs were intended for adult use only, and although the risk scenarios differ by age group, the danger when multiple rare earth magnets are ingested is the same. However, even after the safety alert, ingestions and injuries continued to occur.
Here’s more about the number of injuries associated with the Maxfield & Oberton toys and more about how children and why teenagers accidentally swallow the magnets (from the CPSC news release),
Since 2009, CPSC staff has learned of more than two dozen ingestion incidents, with at least one dozen involving Buckyballs. Surgery was required in many of incidents. The Commission staff alleges in its complaint that it has concluded that despite the attempts to warn purchasers, warnings and education are ineffective and cannot prevent injuries and incidents with these rare earth magnets.
CPSC has received reports of toddlers finding loose magnets left within reach and placing them in their mouths. It can be extremely difficult for a parent to tell if any of the tiny magnets are missing from a set. In some of the reported incidents, toddlers have accessed loose magnets left on a refrigerator and other parts of the home.
Use of the product by tweens and teenagers to mimic piercings of the tongue, lip or cheek has resulted in incidents where the product is unintentionally inhaled and swallowed. These ingestion incidents occur when children receive it as a gift or gain access to the product in their homes or from friends.
When two or more magnets are swallowed, they can attract to one another through the stomach and intestinal walls, resulting in serious injuries, such as holes in the stomach and intestines, intestinal blockage, blood poisoning and possibly death. Medical professionals may not diagnose the need for immediate medical intervention in such cases, resulting in worsening of the injuries.
Here’s how the CPSC explains the reason for filing suit (from the CPSC news release),
The Commission staff filed the administrative complaint against Maxfield & Oberton after discussions with the company and its representatives failed to result in a voluntary recall plan that CPSC staff considered to be adequate. This type of legal action against a company is rare, as this is only the second administrative complaint filed by CPSC in the past 11 years.
Michelle Castillo’s July 26, 2012 news item for CBS News provides more background,
Currently marketed to adults, the CPSC reported that more than 2 million Buckyballs have been sold in the U.S., as well as 200,000 Buckycubes. Each container has anywhere from between 10 to 216 small magnets.
CPSC spokesperson Alex Filip told CBSNews.com that there were 22 cases of swallowing these magnets from 2009 to October 2011. One of the most high-profile cases was that of a 3-year-old from Portland, Ore., who swallowed 37 magnets. The girl needed surgery after the balls ripped three holes through her intestines.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)said in a statement that they agreed with the CSPS complaint, adding that the minute size of the magnets made it hard for caregivers to see if one is missing. A survey of North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition members found that there have been more than 60 magnet ingestion cases over the last two years, which necessitated 26 surgeries and involved 23 bowel perforations. It wasn’t stated how many of these cases were related to Buckyball or Buckycube magnets. [emphasis mine]
According to the CPSC information, there were a dozen or more incidents associated with the Buckyball/Buckycube magnets. I’m unclear as to how many incidents that is per year since 2009 – 2011 could be considered either two years (e.g. July 2009 – July 2011) or three years (Jan. – Dec. of 2009, 2010, and 2011). Regardless, either four or six incidents per year in the US have been attributed to these Maxfield & Oberton toys (or, seven to eleven incidents based on the total number  of accidents involving the ingestion of these kinds of magnets).
Maxfield & Oberton’s response covers a number of points,
“We are deeply disappointed that the CPSC has decided to go after our firm – and magnets in general. Magnets have been around for centuries and are used for all sorts of purposes. Our products are marketed to those 14 and above and out of over half a billion magnets in the market place CPSC has received reports of less than two-dozen cases of misuse. We worked with the Commission in order to do an education video less than 9 months ago, so we are shocked they are taking this action. We find it unfair, unjust and un-American,” added Zucker [Craig Zucker, founder and Chief Executive Officer]. “We will vigorously fight this action taken by President Obama’s hand picked agency.”
Maxfield believes the CPSC is now taking the absurd position that warnings can never work. By doing so, CPSC has called into question the efficacy of all of the warnings the agency relies upon including its recently announced program to warn about the risk of strangulation posed by cords on baby monitors, cords that have been involved in 7 deaths.
What will CPSC do about drowning for which its remedy is warnings?
For balloons involved in several deaths each year, the Commission warns about the risk of suffocation from uninflated or broken balloons and says “Adult supervision required.” But for some reason when it comes to an American company that sells Buckyballs® exclusively to adults, the CPSC takes a different approach and decides that warnings don’t work. The Company believes the CPSC can’t have it both ways.
While this isn’t a nanotechnology story as such, despite what the toys are named, it does illustrate issues around risk s, hazards, and regulations. What are the benefits? What risks are we prepared to tolerate? What are the hazards and how do we mitigate against them? How much regulation do we need? What are the impacts economically and socially?