Monday, November 5, 2012

Buckyballs Met the Grim Reaper: The Consumer Products Safety Commission

Buckyballs met the Grim Reaper, The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), and lost.

Tomorrow decides the fate of our Republic. Buckyballs’ and Buckycubes’ fate was sealed last week when their owner succumbed to the CPSC in yet another chapter of a petty bureaucracy acting bad.

Buckyballs are magnetic steel balls, made from rare earth minerals, which increase the magnetism. They are about the size of BB’s shaped as a geodesic cube. They have become a popular seller as an adult desk toy.

Craig Zucker and his partner, Jake Bronstein, started the company, Maxfield and Oberton Holdings, LL.C., three years ago in an apartment in Brooklyn. Henry Ford, William Hewlett and David Packard, and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started their businesses in a garage. Zucker and Bronstein were joining the line of entrepreneurs who made America great by starting small.

They may still make it, but not with Buckyballs and without the 8 employees they will have to lay off.

The CPSC has a well earned reputation as one of the most ineffectual federal agencies. Its last complaint was filed 11 years ago against the Daisy Rifle Company, manufacturer of BB guns. It sought a recall of 7.3 rifle guns, but settled for increased warnings on the guns. Its earlier crusade was against lawn darts.

The two biggest killers of our children are bicycles and balloons. Other products which can result in substantial injury to young children include bicycles, Legos (not Duplos), lithium/cadmium button batteries, marbles, paper clips, red wagons, skate boards, sports, and thumb tacks. Poor dietary habits are unhealthy for children, as are guns and cars. Swimming pools, sprinklers, and garden hoses are dangerous.

The list goes on. The reality is that you cannot childproof a house or otherwise make life risk-free for children. Being born and growing up is a risky endeavor.

I don’t wish injuries on any child, but very few children grow up injury free. I feel for the parents who lose a child.

Buckyballs are dangerous when ingested. They are especially pernicious when multiple balls are swallowed as they join together inside the digestive tract. Surgery is often needed to remove the balls.

The CPSC filed an administrative complaint against Maxfield and Oberton earlier this year. The agency stated that the warnings were ineffective in preventing future incidents.

The Agency has been involved with magnet safety problems for several years. 11 of the 13 suppliers of these magnets acceded to the CPSC’s request to cease marketing them. Maxfield and Oberton and Zen Magnets, a smaller supplier in Denver, refused to go along.

Of course the warning were not 100% effective. Warnings hardly ever are. In a modern society with ubiquitous warnings, consumers spend less and less time reading them. The government though believes warnings are a substitute for common sense and personal responsibility.

The company put up a spirited fight. They started a PR campaign with the slogan “Save our balls.” They retained a top flight law firm to represent them.

My guess is that the company, whose sales are less than $25 million annually, reached the point where they could no longer financially afford to fight the federal agency with the government’s resources behind it.

It’s sad that an entrepreneur with a popular product can be beaten down by a government agency.

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