WASHINGTON -- The Consumer Product Safety Commission Wednesday said it has a lawsuit against the maker of the popular magnetic desk toy Buckyballs, as part of its four-year response to product safety issues.
Some major retailers, including Amazon, Brookstone and Urban Outfitters, have agreed to stop selling these and similar products because of the risks posed to children who swallow the tiny balls, CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said Wednesday.
Dozens of children have ingested the tiny magnets in Buckyballs and similar products sold by competitors. At least 12 of the ingestions involved Buckyballs and many required surgeries, the CPSC says.
The tiny balls could be swallowed inadvertently by young children who gain access to them. But teenagers have also swallowed them when using them to pretend to have lip or nose piercings, Wolfson says.
On Wednesday, Maxfield and Oberton, maker of Buckyballs issued a response to the CPSC lawsuit headlined "Thank you for trying to drive a $50 million New York-based consumer product company out of business."
The release cited the product as the "No. 1 selling brand name in high-powered magnets, quoting favorable reviews from The Washington Post and New York magazine.
The company release also alleged that the CPSC alerted retailers to the agency's lawsuit before "giving the company a chance to defend itself and its products."
In its lawsuit, CPSC said Buckyballs and Buckycubes present a "substantial product hazard" and that warnings are not effective in addressing it. The commission asked that the company stop importing and selling it, refund consumers' money and post a notice on its web site and any other related site that has sold the products stating that the product is defective. CPSC also charged in its suit that the packaging is defective because it is childproof and it's impossible for parents to tell if a magnet is missing.
"We want parents to be aware of the danger associated with these innocent-looking magnets," CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum said in 2009. "The potential for serious injury and death if multiple magnets are swallowed demands that parents and medical professionals be aware of this hidden hazard and know how to treat a child in distress."
Buckyballs and Buckycubes are the company's sole products, and its product web site prominently displays a warning that the products are not toys, although elsewhere on the site, the products are referred to as desk toys.
In addition, the Buckyballs' web site contains two warnings at the top of a page on safety, which warns its products are "not manufactured, promoted, labeled, or intended for children." There is also a warning box on that page that says the products should be kept away from all children, that swallowing the magnets can cause serious injury or death, and to seek immediate medical attention if the products are swallowed or inhaled.
The Buckyballs' web site contains two press releases, which detail the CPSC's 2011 public warning of the dangers of the product and the Buckyballs maker's 2009 cooperation with the CPSC to voluntarily recall the product because of its potential hazard to children.
In a matter unrelated to this lawsuit, Courthouse News Service in May reported that Buckminster Fuller's estate had filed suit in federal court, claiming that Buckyballs' maker did not have permission to use Fuller's name for Buckyballs.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction and damages for unfair competition, in addition to invasion of privacy, name appropriation and unfair business practices. The suit also claimed that Buckyballs producer was marketing their product as the world's most popular desk toy.
Buckyballs made the cover of Brookstone's Father's Day catalog this year. An entire tie was made out of Buckyballs. The company has sold 2.5 million Buckyballs desk toys since 2009.