Parents rightfully expect that a toy should perform as advertised and certainly not place their children at risk of an injury. Moreover, under federal law, a company must notify the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission as soon as they obtain information that their product poses a significant threat to consumers.
When a manufacturer remains silent or fails to disclose accurately the extent of injuries caused by a toy, a child's life can be lost. Sadly, that is what occurred just a few years ago.
Mega Brands America Inc., formerly known as Rose Art Industries, sells Magtasik and Magnetix magnetic toys and building sets. These popular toys are animal, vehicle or building blocks embedded with magnets that allow the parts to connect to metal balls. In older models, the embedded magnets can detach, especially over time as the toy ages.
The embedded magnets in these older models detach because they are uncapped. The plastic around uncapped magnets looks flat and is at the same level as the magnet. The full surface of the magnet is exposed. The safer capped magnets, which were produced after the recall, are held in by a rim of plastic. This plastic cap rises above the level of the magnet and contains the magnet from above.
If a child swallows or inhales more than one detached magnet, the magnets can attach to each other internally, causing potentially fatal intestinal perforations and blockages or serious lung injuries. Emergency surgery is required to remove the magnets.
"These magnets are so powerful that if you place one on top of your finger and one on the bottom, they attach through the skin and bone," stated CPSC spokesperson Scott Wolfson.
Millions of these magnetic toys have been recalled in three separate instances between 2006-2008. The recalls expanded the number of products taken off the market due to greater reports of injuries.
The initial recall in 2006 could have occurred earlier and been more expansive if Rose Art provided the government timely and accurate information about the dangers to children posed by Magnetix toys.
In April 2009, the CPSC announced that Mega Brands agreed to pay a $1.1 million to settle allegations the company violated federal law on reporting safety threats to consumers. According to a press release issued by the CPSC,
In December of 2005, Rose Art filed an "initial report" with CPSC that a 22-month-old child from Washington state had died, due to ingesting multiple magnets that fell out of pieces from a Magnetix set. The report contained no other product or incident information and Rose Art attributed the magnets falling out to unusually abusive play by the toddler's older siblings. On February 1, 2006, Rose Art submitted a Full Report which again lacked incident and product information. Rose Art stated that it did not retain any complaint or incident records. On March 31, 2006, Rose Art voluntarily recalled nearly 4 million Magnetix sets for users under the age of 6.
An investigation by the CPSC later found that, prior to the death of the Washington child, Rose Art had received over 1,100 complaints that magnets had fallen out of Magnetix plastic pieces. In May 2005, an Indiana preschool teacher reported that a 5-year-old child had required emergency surgery after swallowing a Magnetix magnet. Yet the company remained silent.
In April 2007, Mega Brands America expanded the recall of Magnetix sets for users of any age, after more than 25 children suffered intestinal injuries that required surgery to remove the magnets. Mega Brands contends that it was unaware of the problems associated with Magnetix toys when it acquired Rose Art.
As noted by Los Angeles Times consumer reporter David Lazarus, this case highlights the difficulty that parents face in obtaining accurate and up-to-date safety data from the CPSC:
It turns out that a company or consumer can't just call up and ask the agency to search its database for a specific product or manufacturer. Rather, a request would have to be filed under the Freedom of Information Act and months could pass before a response might be offered. Joe Martyak, the commission's chief of staff, acknowledged that this isn't the most efficient way of providing access to the agency's vast storehouse of safety data. "Our databases aren't set up for doing it any other way," he said.
The case also highlights the difficulty of removing dangerous products from the market after a recall occurs. In 2007, the CPSC sponsored a forum on magnet ingestion, during which it was determined that magnet ingestion is likely to be a growing problem since age-weakened plastic causes the magnets to loosen more easily.
While the CPSC does not release specific data pertaining to recall response rates, Scott Wolfson of the CPSC stated in December 2007 that data indicates that millions of the powerful magnets have not been turned in and may remain in the hands of children.