WASHINGTON -- The Consumer Product Safety Commission announced Monday evening that it reached a settlement agreement with the creator of Buckyballs to recall the small, powerful magnetic desk toys that regulators say pose "an unreasonable risk of injury" to children and teens.
The settlement ends a nearly two-year saga that saw the Buckyballs creator celebrated by conservatives as an entrepreneur taking on the federal government and helped him launch a line of products intended to promote and fund a legal battle to protect the magnetic toy line.
Buckyballs are just one of a variety of creative magnet toys that the CPSC has been trying to get recalled since July 2012. The pea-sized balls are made of rare-earth magnets, and can be stacked or shaped. While Buckyballs and other similar products have been described as toys for adults, the CPSC has said the magnetic balls pose a hazard for children and teens. If a child swallows more than one magnet, the powerful balls can pull together inside his or her digestive system, potentially causing internal injuries that the CPSC has described as similar to "a gun shot wound to the gut with no sign of entry or exit."
Ten of the 13 companies that made magnetic stacking toys like Buckyballs have agreed to voluntary recalls, and a number of retailers have agreed to stop selling them. Maxfield & Oberton Holdings LLC, the company that originally produced the Buckyballs toys and a cube version called Buckycubes, dissolved in December 2012. It previously called the CPSC's efforts to recall the products "baseless and relentless legal badgering."
With the Buckyballs parent company gone but the toys still present in people's homes, the CPSC took the rare step last year of filing a lawsuit against former Maxfield & Oberton Holdings CEO and Buckyballs creator Craig Zucker, seeking to hold him personally responsible for a recall.
Under the agreement with the CPSC, Zucker has agreed to put $375,000 into a recall trust that the CPSC will create and control. The CPSC will recall both Buckyballs and Buckycubes, and will grant refunds to customers who want to return the magnets. The recall has not yet formally begun, but the agency says it will issue a notice when it actually begins providing refunds.
The recall agreement, CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said, "is a win for the safety of children."
"We believe there is a very serious hazard with this product, potentially deadly," said Wolfson. "We want parents to take away the Buckyballs and the Buckycubes from any access to their children now, and take full advantage of the recall."
The CPSC also said in its announcement that it is illegal under federal law to sell, manufacture, distribute or import Buckyballs and Buckycubes.
The commission has said that between 2009 and 2011, at least 1,700 children were taken to the emergency room after ingesting connectable magnet toys, and many required surgery to have the magnets removed. The CSPC also warned that Buckyballs and similar products pose a risk to teenagers, not just small children, as teens have been found using them to mimic facial piercings. Doctors who have looked into the concerns about ingesting the balls have said that they can pull the intestines into loops and create holes, which can cause abscesses and infections in internal organs.
Despite the health concerns, Zucker and Buckyballs became a cause célèbre on the right. An opinion column in the Wall Street Journal last November decried the "irrational federal war on Buckyballs." Reason Magazine recently ran a feature on the federal government's "vendetta against the creator of Buckyballs." Zucker also appeared on Fox News, where he was feted as a small businessman fighting "government overreach."
Zucker now runs a website, Unitedweball.org, that sells products "to support the legal battle of one individual against government." The site claims that "the government’s case against Buckyballs will have severe, far-reaching ramifications for the future of American businesses and consumers." The site's wares include larger versions of Buckyballs, called Liberty Balls and the Ball of Rights.
The site says that "100% of the profits go towards the legal fees of fighting the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s absurd case against Buckyballs and Craig Zucker." In a small bit of irony, the CPSC has said Zucker's new products would actually meet their proposed standards for magnetic ball toys because they’re too large for kids to swallow.
The CPSC said its lawsuits against two other manufactures of this type of toy, Star Networks and Zen Magnets, are still active.
Recent cases involving the ingestion of small, magnetic linking toys have highlighted some of the risks associated with them. A children's hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, issued a warning on the products on March 31 after two local children swallowed magnetic balls and fell "critically ill." And a 14-year-old girl from Melbourne, Florida, had to undergo surgery late last year after ingesting rare-earth magnets.
“After nearly two years of fighting, it’s good to finally have this case behind me,” said Zucker in a statement. “My life has been consumed with defending both an overreaching lawsuit and the rights of small business owners. At this point, I have spent more on legal fees than I will on the settlement. The law does not support an individual being named in a case like this and I hope that this settlement will discourage the CPSC from wrongfully pursuing individual officers and entrepreneurs again in the future.”