Buckyballs fight back

August 2, 2012

The company that distributes Buckyballs magnets unleashed an advertising blitz Thursday aimed at Washington policymakers — including President Obama — as it tries to save itself from what it describes as the antics of overzealous regulators.

Maxfield & Oberton ran the ads after the Consumer Product Safety Commission sued to stop the New York firm from selling Buckyballs, a legal tactic that the CPSC has used only once before in the past 11 years. The agency says the adult desk toys made up of BB-size magnets pose a hazard to children, some of whom have suffered serious injuries after swallowing the balls.

The CPSC this week announced that 11 firms that make, distribute or import similar products have agreed to the agency’s request to stop selling their magnets.

But one company that regulators contacted, Zen Magnets, announced Thursday that it has refused to cooperate. The firm said it has never marketed its product to children or learned of any injuries tied to its magnets. It has launched a petition at www.savemagnets.com to pressure the agency to stop what it says is an “unfair ban” on all small magnets.

Maxfield & Oberton also has appealed to the public, creating a “Save Our Balls” Web site that urged Buckyballs lovers to “post, tweet, comment and make noise” about the CPSC’s actions — and to buy Buckyballs. More than 30,000 people have viewed the video on that site, and online sales in the past week have nearly matched the firm’s typical weekly performance at stores, said Craig Zucker, the company’s co-founder.

Zucker predicts that online sales will soon slip as publicity fades. Major retailers have stopped selling Buckyballs, Buckycubes and similar magnets at the CPSC’s request. Zucker said that’s why he’s appealing to policymakers in publications widely read on Capitol Hill — including The Washington Post, Politico, the Hill and Roll Call.

In an ad in The Post, Zucker urged Obama to intervene. He said the CPSC has relied on warning labels for balloons, button batteries, fireworks and other potentially dangerous products. “We do not understand why our products, marketed exclusively for adults and with so few injuries, have suddenly been raised to the very top of the CPSC’s action list,” Zucker’s ad said.

The CPSC said it is unfazed by the plea. The agency is preparing a proposal designed to address the risks of all rare-earth magnets, said Scott Wolfson, the agency’s spokesman.

“We are not going to wait for a death to happen,” Wolfson said. “The injuries that we have seen are like a gunshot wound to the gut with no sign of entry or exit.”

When two or more of the magnets are swallowed, they can attach to each other, ripping holes in the stomach and intestines or causing other serious injuries or blood poisoning. The agency said it knows of more than two dozen magnet ingestion cases since 2009. At least a dozen of them involved Buckyballs, and some required surgery.

The agency also has said that it kept receiving reports of Buckyballs-related injuries to children even after it worked with the company to improve the warning labels and educate the public about the magnets’ hazards. Misuse, the agency concluded, is “inevitable.”

Dina ElBoghdady covers housing policy for The Washington Post.
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