The number of children ingesting rare-earth magnets — powerful tiny balls that are a popular desk toy and can shred a child’s intestines — has skyrocketed in the three years since courts blocked the efforts of federal regulators to force changes to the industry, which largely holds the power to regulate itself.
The nation’s poison control centers are on track to record six times more magnet ingestions — totaling nearly 1,600 cases — this year than in 2016, when a federal court first sided with industry to lift the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s four-year ban on the product. Medical researchers say the only explanation for the spike is the return of these unusually strong magnets to the market after the court ruling.
Now, with the CPSC largely sidelined, magnet industry officials have launched a new effort to prevent product injuries and deaths through voluntary safety standards. Used for thousands of consumer products, these voluntary standards are supposed to reflect a balance between business and safety interests.
But during the creation of voluntary standards for magnets, the priorities of safety groups and regulators have been drowned out by the desires of manufacturers, who often decide which safety options are considered and hold an advantage in voting on which rules will take effect, according to a Washington Post review that included listening to hours of public standard-setting meetings and obtaining emails about the process, along with interviews and documents.
Problems with voluntary safety standards extend beyond magnets, critics say, to other children’s products, including infant inclined sleepers, crib bumpers and furniture at risk of toppling over. In many cases, the CPSC can’t act until the voluntary standards have proved inadequate.
“It makes our jobs harder to have to defer by law to an extremely inefficient and industry-focused process,” said Elliot Kaye, a CPSC commissioner and former agency chairman. The voluntary standards process, he said, “has cost lives.”
In the magnets case, which played out over recent weeks, manufacturers drew clear limits on how far they were willing to go for safety. They would consider only standards that “don’t change the utility, functionality and desirability of the product for adults,” Craig Zucker, who runs a magnet company, said in an email to others on the committee deciding the proposed safety rules.
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