In an unusual move, the Consumer Product Safety Commission filed an administrative complaint Wednesday against New York-based Maxfield and Oberton, the manufacturer of Buckyballs. The desktop toys have small but very powerful magnets that are strong enough to mold into different shapes.
The safety commission says the company refused to recall the product. On another front, the agency said it was able to persuade about 10 retailers, including Amazon.com, to stop selling Buckyballs.
In a statement, Maxfield and Oberton called the agency actions "unfair, unjust and un-American." Company founder Craig Zucker said his products are marketed to people 14 and older and carry clear warning labels to keep them away from kids.
Since 2009, the CPSC says, at least a dozen children have swallowed the magnets. Some required surgery.
One of those needing emergency surgery was Sabrina Lopez, 12, in Bakersfield, Calif.
Betty Lopez said she and her daughter were preparing dinner earlier this year when her daughter told her that a friend had brought Buckyballs to school and the girls were pretending to have tongue piercings. Her mom says while Sabrina was twisting her tongue with the balls in her mouth, she accidentally swallowed them.
"It's extremely frightening," Betty Lopez said in an AP interview. "She could have died."
The girl was rushed to urgent care and an X-ray showed she had swallowed four magnets. She had emergency surgery and spent six days in the hospital.
In its complaint, the commission says the powerful magnets can get stuck in the gastrointestinal walls, leading to perforations that can cause serious injury or death.
In one case the agency cited, a 4-year-old boy accidentally ingested three Buckyballs magnets that he thought were chocolate candy "because they looked like the decorations on his mother's wedding cake."
Last year, CPSC issued a safety warning about high-powered magnets. Since then, however, the agency says it has continued to receive reports of children swallowing the tiny magnets.
Maxfield and Oberton's Zucker said his company will fight the agency.
"We worked with the commission in order to do an education video less than 9 months ago, so we are shocked they are taking this action," he added.
If the administrative law judge rules in favor of the commission, then CPSC could compel Maxfield to stop the sale of its Buckyballs. But the company could appeal to the agency's four commissioners. It could also appeal in federal court. The commission typically negotiates product recalls with companies, and they usually work out an agreement. The last time the agency filed an administrative complaint against a company was in 2001 in a BB gun case.