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Federal product safety regulators took rare legal action last week to remove tiny magnets called Buckyballs® and Buckycubes™ from the market after the maker failed to recall the products.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced the agency has filed an administrative complaint against Maxfield & Oberton Holdings LLC, importer and distributor of Buckyballs and Buckycubes high-powered magnet sets, claiming the products create a substantial risk of injury to the public. More than two dozen children and teenagers have suffered internal injuries that required surgical intervention after swallowing more than one of the tiny magnets, which snapped together inside their gastrointestinal track.

These products contain small, high-powered magnets. Because the magnet sets contain as many as 216 magnets, it may be difficult to determine if any are missing. Toddlers have found loose magnets and placed them in their mouths. Other children swallowed them after using them to mimic lip, tongue or cheek piercings.

When a person swallows two or more magnets, the magnetic force pulls the magnets together even through the stomach and intestinal walls. This can result in long-term health consequences, including inflammation and ulceration, progressing to tissue death, then perforation or fistula formation. These conditions can lead to infection, sepsis and death. Diagnosis and prompt treatment of these conditions may not occur if parents or doctors do not know the child ingested magnets.

“Children who undergo surgery to remove multiple magnets from their gastrointestinal tract are also at risk for long-term health consequences, including intestinal scarring, nutritional deficiencies due to loss of portions of the bowel, and possible fertility issues for women,” the administrative complaint said.

The company originally marketed the magnets by comparing their appeal to other children’s products such as erector sets and silly putty and then later rebranded the products as an adult executive desk toy and stress reliever.

In March 2010, the CPSC sent notification to Maxfield and Oberton Holdings that Buckyballs, labeled for ages 13+, failed to comply with the requirement for products sold to children younger than 14. The company issued a recall in May 2010 of about 175,000 magnet sets and changed the labeling to say ages 14+.

Despite the labeling change and a campaign by the CPSC and Maxfield and Oberton Holdings that the products are intended for adult use only, reports of ingestion and injury in children related to the products continue.

The CPSC says the warnings on the packaging are ineffective.

Maxfield and Oberton Holdings contend that there is nothing wrong with their product.

“You might have heard there’s a problem with our products… THAT IS NOT TRUE,” the Buckyballs website says.

"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,” said Craig Zucker, Founder and CEO of New York, NY based Maxfield and Oberton Holdings in a release. “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. Obviously the bureaucrats see danger everywhere, and those responsible people – like our company who have vigorously promoted safety and appropriate use of our products – gets put out of business by an unfair and arbitrary process. I don't understand how and why they did this without following their own rules before allowing us to make our case. It almost seems like they simply wanted to put our products and industry out of business."

However, the CPSC says it “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 is only the 2nd time in eleven years the agency has filed an administrative complaint against a business.

At the request of the CPSC, some retailers such as Ebay have already voluntarily stopped selling Buckyballs, Buckycubes, and similar products.

More than 2 million Buckyballs sets and 200,000 Buckycubes sets have been sold in the United States. The company recently introduced another product called Buckybars ™ that is a combination of tiny bars and balls.

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