“Feds file suit against Buckyballs; retailers ban product.” Craig
Zucker was shocked when he read that headline in USA Today
in July. His company, Maxfield & Oberton, owed its success to
Buckyballs. Now it was being sued by the Consumer Product
Safety Commission, or CPSC, which claimed magnetic toys
like Buckyballs posed a health risk to children, hundreds of
whom had been injured after swallowing them. The agency
was seeking to bar the sale of Buckyballs and similar products.
Zucker had been working for some time to address the commission’s concerns without having to go through a recall. But
that, it seemed, wasn’t enough to satisfy the CPSC.
in May 2012, Maxfield & oberton received
an information request from the cpsc,
asking for a list of its retailers, copies of its
marketing materials, and a list of any known
safety incidents involving its products. again,
Zucker complied. a few weeks later, he
received a letter from the agency demanding
that he recall buckyballs and buckycubes.
because of their high magnetic flux,
rare-earth magnets can cause severe
internal injury if swallowed; two magnets
attracted to each other can cause blockages, or worse, in the intestines. children
were highly attracted to the shiny magnets, the cpsc argued, and it was easy for
“It’s necessary to take stronger
action to keep children safe,” a
safety commission official says.
THe backs Tory
in 2009, Zucker and his friend Jake
bronstein happened to see a video of
people making unusual geometric
shapes out of small rare-earth magnets.
Zucker suggested that they sell magnet sets
as a desk toy. they sourced the magnets from a chinese
manufacturer, and that march, buckyballs were born. the
tiny magnetic balls came in packs of 125 or 216, for $25 to
$40, and were a big hit out of the gate. Rolling Stone named
buckyballs toy of the year in its holiday gift guide. in 2011,
the company launched another product, buckycubes. as
distribution expanded to stores such as Urban outfitters
and brookstone, annual sales hit $18 million.
The company added safety
warnings, recalled products,
and stopped selling in
the cPSc first came calling in march 2010. New
regulations required that all makers of toys for kids 13
and older change the suitable age range to 14 and older.
the company immediately complied. it also added safety
warnings, recalled all products with the old labeling, and
stopped selling its products in children’s stores. Plus, it
submitted reports to the agency about two incidents in
which children had swallowed the magnets.
the following fall, the company worked with the cPSc to
produce a video warning that high-powered magnet sets
were unsuitable for children. a year later, Zucker launched
an informational website for parents and established a
safety program for retailers to ensure that maxfield &
oberton’s products were not sold to underage customers.
stray magnets that had fallen on the floor
to end up within their reach. The agency
estimated that since 2009, 1,700 children
had swallowed magnets. More than 20
children had required surgery; in one case,
a 23-month-old boy required a bowel
transplant. Warnings, the commission
argued, simply weren’t enough. “it’s necessary to take stronger action to keep children safe,” says scott Wolfson, the cpsc’s
director of communications.
The agency contacted Maxfield & oberton’s major retailers, informing them of its
investigation and suggesting they remove
buckyballs and buckycubes from their
shelves. urban outfitters, brookstone, and
amazon, among others, complied.
Zucker, however, insisted that there
was nothing wrong with his company’s
products, which were strictly marketed
to adults only. The notion that warnings
were ineffective in preventing injury
seemed to him to contradict the cpsc’s
usual approach to safety hazards. “The
rate of incident for buckyballs, compared
to so many other products—such as fireworks and balloons—is astoundingly low,”
he says. on july 24, he sent the cpsc
an alternative plan of action, including
proposals to sell the products in a child-resistant carrying case, create more educational programs, and add enhanced
warnings on the company’s labels.
The next day, Zucker read in USA Today
that the cpsc had filed suit against his
company—the first time in 11 years the
commission had sued to force a company to
stop selling its products. Zucker was blind-sided. He had recently announced two new
products, buckybars and bucky bigs, neither of which had hit stores. The company
was on track to close 2012 with $25 million
in sales. now its survival was at stake.