Eleven companies have withdrawn their magnets voluntarily from the U.S. market. But the makers of Buckyballs and Zen Magnets are fighting back – including through Buckyballs' cheeky "Save Our Balls" campaign. Limbaugh and Malkin have picked up the Buckyball, too, with Malkin blasting the CPSC as "Nanny State job-killers."
But a cigar is sometimes really just a cigar. And there's a growing body of evidence that Buckyballs and the like are just what the CPSC and a phalanx of medical experts say: fun things to play with that pose way too much needless – and largely hidden – risk.
I've enjoyed rare-earth magnets myself, fiddling with them at a friend's and then receiving a set as a gift. I get why Buckyballs were once touted as "Silly Putty for adults" – they share the same addictive appeal to the fidgety. In a 2009 profile of Jake Bronstein, a former Philadelphian described as "the brains behind a new toy/gadget/gizmo called Buckyballs," The Inquirer said he was "on a mission to fill the world with fun."
But it turns out that Buckyballs do have a downside.
The trouble is that these tiny, powerful magnets can be easily swallowed by young children, who put anything in their mouths. They are also sometimes ingested by older kids, who have found that they can be used to simulate body piercings – they're powerful enough to attract each other through, say, the thickness of a lip or tongue.
Generally, if you swallow a small item – say, a coin or a BB, to which Buckyballs are compared – it will pass through your digestive tract uneventfully. But magnets are a different story. They can cause horrible injuries, as more and more gastroenterologists learned in recent years.
"If you swallow one, it's no problem," says Athos Bousvaros, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard. "But once you swallow a second, they can stick your intestines together. They can poke holes in the lining by causing pressure ulcers."
R. Adam Noel, a pediatric GI specialist, saw two such cases in quick succession this spring at Children's Hospital of New Orleans. One was a 3-year-old boy who swallowed 39 rare-earth magnets but was treated within hours.
"He almost had a perforation between his stomach and esophagus," Noel told me. "He had a deep pressure ulcer, but we were able to get them out."
A 22-month-old toddler from Mississippi wasn't so lucky. He swallowed just eight magnets, but they pinched tissue together and seriously damaged his intestines. He'll eventually need a bowel transplant, Noel says.
Concerned about the incidents, Noel put out a query on an e-mail list of his fellow specialists, a group that numbers well under 1,000. Normally, he'd expect a response or two. This time he was inundated – he has so far counted 102 cases around the country, including 30 that have required surgery. Five patients had to have sections of bowel removed.
Product-safety experts have long known that magnets embedded in toys could pose safety hazards if they came loose and were swallowed. As of 2006, the CPSC had identified one death and 19 injuries requiring surgery over the preceding three years.
"In the old magnet toys, you had a few of them deep in plastic. The kids who got them chewed them out," Noel says. That risk could at least be mitigated by improved design.
But with Buckyballs and other rare-earth magnets, the magnet is the toy. Even if they're not pitched for kids – and Buckyball's marketer, New York's Maxfield & Oberton Holdings, is adamant that it steers them only toward adults, and labels them for 14-year-olds or above – some risk is built in, Noel says. "They're just out there like peas on the table."
The CPSC now estimates that about 1,700 children have been treated at emergency rooms for magnet ingestions over the last three years, says spokesman Scott Wolfson.
Craig Zucker, Bronstein's co-founder, says his company and its counterparts have been unfairly targeted, even vilified, "for a small handful of incidents where children have gotten hold of the product and misused it." His company, on track to blow past last year's $18 million in sales, now faces an existential threat.
"We have a product that is intended and sold for adults, and it's perfectly safe and extremely popular when used in the right way," he says, rattling off figures for other swallowing hazards such as balloons and button batteries.
Bousvaros and his colleagues say such arguments miss the point because of the magnets' unique capacity, understandably overlooked, to cause serious harm to children.
"No one wants a company to go out of business," he says. But are these "adult desk toys" – or any toys – really worth so much hidden risk?
Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or firstname.lastname@example.org.