High-Powered Magnet Set Safety Rules Being Developed by CPSC

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced this week that it has begun the process of creating new rules to address serious and potentially life-threatening problems caused by high-powered toy magnet sets

On August 27, the commission voted unanimously to publish a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on a Safety Standard for Magnet Sets”. The proposed rules would create new performance requirements for the toy magnets, regulating their size and strength. Those that fail to meet those standards could not be sold in the United States.

The new rules come after the CPSC has taken steps to force several manufacturers recall toy magnet sets, amid a growing number of injuries and deaths that occurred after two or more of the magnet balls were swallowed.

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The high-powered magnet sets, often called rare earth magnets, contain dozens of tiny metal balls that can be formed into various shapes. While the manufacturers claim that the sets are designed for adults, the regulatory commission became concerned about the safety of the products due to the risk that young children and teens were swallowing the magnets accidentally, often after placing them in their mouths to mimic a tongue or cheek piercing.

If two of the high-powered magnet balls are swallowed, they may attract across intestinal walls, cause obstructions and result in the need for emergency surgery.

The CPSC estimates that the high-powered magnet sets were linked to 1,700 emergency room visits between 2009 and 2011, with children between the ages of four and 12 representing 70% of that number.

Most of the companies that made the magnet sets voluntarily recalled their products at the request of the CPSC, but at least two manufacturers, including the makers of Buckyballs and Zen Magnets, resisted the regulatory actions, resulting in an administrative complaint to force the companies to remove the magnets from the market.

Commissioner Nancy Nord wrote a statement (pdf) that noted her reluctance in agreeing to the new rule, saying she feared it would be overly broad and result in the ban of every current magnet set on the market.

“In particular, the proposed standard proceeds on the belief that warnings do not work for this relatively new product because (it is assumed) warnings are and will be ignored or otherwise not communicated effectively,” Nord wrote. “But in the absence of a robust and comprehensive program to educate and warn about this hazard, it is unclear that warnings will be ineffective and our conclusion that such is the case is speculative. And applying this principle broadly would eviscerate many of the safety standards that the Commission (and Congress) have deemed acceptable.”

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking will appear in the Federal Register in the near future. The public will have 75 days to comment publicly.


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