CPSC’s Buckyballs ban

by Walter Olson on August 13, 2012

Buckyballs are highly popular supermagnetic desktop toys for adults and labeled against use by kids. Nonetheless, some kids obtain the tiny balls and swallow them, with harmful or even lethal results. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has responded with an unusually aggressive show of legal muscle to force the product off the market: while suing the manufacturer, it strong-armed retailers into suspending Buckyball sales, thus cutting off the manufacturer’s revenue while a court decides whether the commission had an adequate basis in law and fact for its action. [Nick Farr, Abnormal Use; manufacturer statement; Time; ABA Journal; Michelle Malkin; Point of Law]

More: “CPSC wants to put a child-proof cap on your life.” [@radleybalko]

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{ 23 comments }

1 CTrees 08.13.12 at 11:02 am

Partly as a show of support, partly because ive wanted them for awhile, i ordered two large sets from getbuckyballs.com. free shipping, and they have a bunch of coupon codes floating around – SUCKITGROUPON got me 45% off the order.

This whole thing is ridiculous. Large, consistent “not for kids” labelling, designed in consultation with the CPSC… punish bad parents, not responsible businesses! Whole thing makes me angry.

2 kimsch 08.13.12 at 2:56 pm

@CTrees, Thanks for the info. I just bought some too.

3 Alan K. Henderson 08.13.12 at 6:57 pm

So when to they ban marbles?

4 Ron Miller 08.13.12 at 8:40 pm

You don’t really punish bad parents when their kids choke to death. You just have a dead kid. Moreover, it can happen with relatively good parents, too.

I can’t speak to this case. (Neither can most of you, frankly.) But the choking risk is real. As society evolves, we look at things in a different way. Just because we have allowed toys/household objects that kids are prone to choke on in the past is not a reason to do it in the future.

I can’t think of many things in the world worse than a child choking to death. Can any of you?

There is a cost/benefit that goes into all of this. Again, while acknowledging I’m not well versed on the facts of this case (reading a few links does not count), I’ve never had a BuckyBall and I’ve been moving along in life quite well.

5 Bumper 08.13.12 at 11:57 pm

Ron,
The problem with BuckyBalls is not so much choking, but if two or more make in to the intestines the magnetic pull will draw them together and the ensuing crushing causes tissue necrosis and it get worse from there. Diagnosis is all but impossible until the kid gets so sick that someone orders up an abdominal x-ray just to give the appearance of doing something.

While I share everyone’s dismay over the really, really belated and over the top response of the CPCS (I don’t know about this particular version, but similar toys have been on the market for a couple of decades at least, and magnets have been around even longerand couple of refrigerator door magnets can accomplish the same thing they are usually not as powerful or as small or as enticing to a small child.) there is at least a cause for a large, strong language warning label.

But what did they expect when the made that major contribution to the Romney campaign. << totally unsubstantiated rumor started be me!

6 peter 08.14.12 at 5:54 am

“Just because we have allowed toys/household objects that kids are prone to choke on in the past is not a reason to do it in the future. ”

So you propose removing any object that can conceivably be swallowed from home commerce eh? Marbles? Banned. Coins? Banned. Keys? Banned. Fridge Magnets? Banned. Xmas tree decorations? Banned. Removable Batteries? Banned. Jewelry? Banned. Hard Sweets? Banned. (Do I need to go on?)

You cannot possibly object to that list ‘ cos after all “I can’t think of many things in the world worse than a child choking to death” and “Just because we have allowed toys/household objects that kids are prone to choke on in the past is not a reason to do it in the future. “

7 CTrees 08.14.12 at 8:19 am

I looked at the packaging. There are FIVE separate warning labels, all with very strong language, all prominently placed so as to be impossible to miss, all starting with “Keep Away From All Children!” and continuing on to describe exactly why they are a danger to kids. This trend is continued throughout their website, and basically everywhere else they can plaster the warning.

If these were marketed towards kids, I could see a problem. They aren’t, and the sheer volume of warnings one has to ignore before giving these to children moves right into negligence. The CPSC isn’t trying to ban kitchen knives because they’re a danger to kids, but it’s really no different (in fact, most knives have far fewer warnings). No one will convince me that it’s not bad parenting at fault-Buckyballs would have to print genitalia on each magnet to market them any more strongly as NOT FOR KIDS.

8 Ron Miller 08.14.12 at 9:45 am

Peter, I agree, it is a tricky line. There are some things that are attractive nuisances – thinks that kids are likely to be attracted to put in their mouths. But it is also important that we consider the cultural significance of the produce as well. It would be hard to ban jewelry in our culture. The world could survive easier without BuckyBalls. Again, I’m not making the call on these – I don’t have enough information. I’m more arguing about the formula to be used in analyzing what we should do.

CTtrees, you make an interesting point. But don’t compare Buckyballs to knives because the utility of knives is so different. The test needs to include both risk and utility.

The worst thing in the freaking world is a dead kid. (I think some of you realize this in practice but not in the abstract. ) This fact does not control every decision we make but it really needs to be the backdrop of the conversation.

9 c 08.14.12 at 12:33 pm

Is the CPSC going to ban cleaning products too since so many American households keep them accessible under their kitchen sink ? Get real.

10 Jeff 08.14.12 at 3:50 pm

Why should a product being banned be so based on its utility?

I have no kids. No kids are ever in my house. I have no young relatives that may one day be there. I can’t imagine (nor do I want) friends bringing their small children to my apartment. Certainly, there are no young ones at my desk at work.

Therefore, because of two dozen injuries by kids, of which I do not have and am never around, out of millions of products sold, I should not be able to have them? Because they serve no purpose other than to entertain me? If you have kids that are prone to eating such things, don’t buy them, end of story.

11 Ron Miller 08.14.12 at 5:25 pm

(Let’s assume Buckyballs are unsafe for kids as Jeff’s post assumes. I have no idea.)

Because most people do have children in their house at some point (boy you seem giddy about your distance from them!). Because you might change your mind and decide having some little rug rats around might not be the worst thing and forget those balls. When you do, it is really not your problem. Instead, we have a dead kid.

Ultimately, I think we need to decide the utility of the product because most of us care more about saving the lives of a few kids than you playing with your Buckyballs alone in your apartment, Jeff. Now if it is something that we reasonably believe is something you really need, we will look at it with a different lens. And how much that changes things depends on the eyes looking at it.

I don’t think there are a ton of people out there arguing that utility should not be considered. That does not mean that it is necessarily wrong but it is not a bad starting point either.

12 DensityDuck 08.14.12 at 7:10 pm

“Ultimately, I think we need to decide the utility of the product”

Ron, I’d be *ecstatic* to hear your opinion on swimming pools.

***********

As we learned during the CPSIA business, the definition of “children’s product” is “whatever the CPSC functionary reviewing the case feels like”. The CPSC’s position is that anything toy-like might be given to a child, regardless of the warning labels or restrictions, and therefore it’s a danger and should be avoided.

13 Ted 08.14.12 at 7:16 pm

Every month, between two and five toddlers and infants drown in five-gallon buckets, more than have been killed by Buckyballs in the history of Buckyballs.

I can’t think of many things in the world worse than a child drowning to death.

Therefore, I hope Ron will join me in my modest proposal of calling for the CPSC to mandate air-holes to be placed around the perimeter of every five-gallon bucket to ensure that no child ever drowns to death again. This is surely preferable to simply banning the sale of the bucket, which we might have to resort to if warning labels and air-holes don’t do the trick.

This might upset some people, but I’ve never owned a five-gallon bucket in my adult life, and have gotten along just dandy.

Won’t someone think of the children?

14 Richard Nieporent 08.14.12 at 10:49 pm

Because you might change your mind and decide having some little rug rats around might not be the worst thing and forget those balls. When you do, it is really not your problem. Instead, we have a dead kid.

Ron, if Buckyballs were so dangerous that the mere presence of a buckyball near a child causes instant death, then nobody would object to it being banned. However, that is not the case. People have guns, knives, drugs, cleaning products that can and do kill children. Using your logic, all of those products should be banned.

By the way why do you persist in saying that buckyballs have caused the death of children? According to the ABA Journal article “The CPSC claims the product poses a swallowing hazard to younger children, report the Washington Post and USA Today. In at least 12 cases, surgery was required.”

I suggest that you read the book Innumeracy, by John Paulos. It discusses peoples’ inability to quantify risk so that they worry more about an improbable event than one with a much higher probability of occurring.

15 David Schwartz 08.15.12 at 3:08 am

Ron: Utility should not considered by the government. Even if a product has no conceivable use whatsoever, there is no reason the government should prohibit it from being sold to adults just because it’s dangerous to children. Anyone other than the government is welcome to do a cost/benefit analysis.

16 Ron Miller 08.15.12 at 1:01 pm

Richard, I agree with you about risk. Freaknomics will tell you the same thing.

But your reading comp is just off. I’m suggesting a balance test which is not exactly revolutionary. Even you implicitly suggest such a test.

17 wfjag 08.15.12 at 5:46 pm

@DensityDuck:
“Ron, I’d be *ecstatic* to hear your opinion on swimming pools.”

Actually, since windmills may be a much worse mortality hazard, I think we can all agree that they should be banned. As of July 12, 2012 there are 76 confirmed deaths, including 27 in the US. Of those 76, the youngest was age 3 (so, we’re covering the danger to children angle), 8 were members of the public (the first of whom was a parachutist who literally flew into a turbine in Germany. This fatality was also the first women killed by wind energy. This gets us covered on another angle — name the 2 things that fall out of the sky — women and . . .– old paratrooper joke that wasn’t especially funny even then, so the ban of windmills also is a strike against stale humor).

Further, there are anecdotal reports of wind turbines throwing their blades. On Samsø a 55 kW Nordtank threw a blade through a window into an indoor swimming pool, according to one knowledgeable source. Fortunately nobody was home. (Ahhh! But did it have an ADA compliant handicapped person chairlift installed ?)

For further information on the swirling death menace of windmills, see Wind Energy — The Breath of Life or the Kiss of Death: Contemporary Wind Mortality Rates, by Paul Gipe
http://www.wind-works.org/articles/BreathLife.html

Essentially, depending on whose ox you’re willing to gore, we can argue that anything lacks the utility to overcome its danger (under some circumstances, however rare or warned or guarded against) and so should be banned.

[Oh, and while we're at it, let's ban guys (and books and plays and movies about guys) who joust with windmills. There's a little too much culture in those and that's probably dangerous, as well.]

18 Ron Miller 08.15.12 at 10:52 pm

Those number are misleading but let’s accept them as you have presented them.

Swimming pools and alcohol are not things I think we would allow in modern society if we were starting the whole thing from scratch. We tolerate both because they are so deeply – deeply – embedded in our culture.

(That *ecstatic* thing is real cute. I’m always excited when people find new ways to be condescending on the Internet. Because, you know, we don’t have enough now. )

19 Richard Nieporent 08.16.12 at 9:28 am

Swimming pools and alcohol are not things I think we would allow in modern society if we were starting the whole thing from scratch. We tolerate both because they are so deeply – deeply – embedded in our culture.

Ron, all I can say is Wow! Please tell me you are not being serious. The 18th Amendment didn’t work out very well, now did it? What else would be banned in your utopian society?

20 Ron Miller 08.16.12 at 10:21 am

You took that comment as my suggesting that we bring back the 18th? Seriously? Richard, do you have any idea how many conservative thinkers – who would never consider considering limitations on alcohol – have said the same thing. My thought is not exactly original.

21 DensityDuck 08.16.12 at 4:28 pm

“Swimming pools and alcohol are not things I think we would allow in modern society”

obvious troll is obvious, try again

22 Glenn Troester 08.25.12 at 3:26 pm

I am a retired journalist, and spent a decade of my career as a nuclear communication coordinator with the nuclear industry. The concept of relative risk was a major part of my job.
Ron Miller seems to be saying that if even if one child is maimed or killed by something, that is sufficient to warrant banning it, whatever it is. That is a shortcut to a sterile world.
We humans now value a totally risk-free existence. But the truth is, to function we must accept the idea that some people will die, including kids. Perhaps we don’t punish parents if they kill a kid through their negligence. But that does not mean we should punish everybody else who was even tangentially implicated in the child’s death.
My question: what can we individuals do, aside from jawboning this, to force the CPSC to relent?

23 Lucas 08.28.12 at 3:00 am

As far as I am concerned buckyballs can represent risk for children and can be dangerous for adults too. It’s a new technology so we don’t know how it can react in human body. It’s easy if we compare this new technology with technology that we had in the past, like nuclear power. Finally, I think that first scientists need to figure out all the possible risks for human in a long period, after that, government can allow that citizens use those.

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