Over the last several years, we here at Abnormal Use have documented the controversial saga of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC”) and its battle against the manufacturers of desktop magnets. The witch hunt against those spherical magnets has now taken a new turn, and as chroniclers of this epic tale, we must pause to take note. Last week, the CPSC voted to pass a final rule addressing the alleged dangers of desktop magnets. You can read the 207-page rule here. Essentially, the rule establishes a new standard: If a magnet set contains a magnet that fits within the CPSC’s small parts cylinder, each magnet in the magnet set must have a flux index of 50 kG2 mm2 or less. Magnetic flux is the average magnetic field times the perpendicular area that it penetrates. In other words, flux is how “strong” the magnet is. With the new CPSC ruling, magnet sets with small magnets must have less flux. Sounds good, we suppose.
We don’t have any problems with the CPSC attempting to protect consumers. After all, it is its job. We are shocked, however, that desktop magnets have been the Ace of Spades on the CPSC’s hit list for the last several years. The CPSC has apparently received reports of 1 death and 2,900 incidents of magnet ingestion. Certainly not numbers to ignore, but cause for a public spectacle of this magnitude? Presumably, far more dangerous products have entered the stream of commerce without catching the gaze of the CPSC. Maybe the CPSC really did see desktop magnets as a matter of upmost importance. Or, maybe it was Buckyballs CEO Mark Zucker’s public mockery of the CPSC’s logic that fueled the fire. We will let you be the judge. Whatever the case, we urge you to read the CPSC’s 207-page order the next time you are looking for a little light reading. It traces the CPSC’s plight and gives you the rare opportunity to probe the motives of a powerful federal agency. Of particular note, play close attention to what the CPSC says about product warnings (you know, the very thing Zucker mocked). Specifically, the CPSC states:
A possible alternative to the rule would be to require warnings with or on magnet sets. As discussed in the NPR preamble and in response to comments set forth in section E of this preamble, it is unlikely that warnings on the packages of magnet sets would significantly reduce the ingestion-related injuries caused by high-powered magnets. Safety and warnings literature consistently identifies warnings as a less effective hazard- control measure than eliminating the hazard through design or guarding the consumer from a hazard. Warnings do not prevent consumer exposure to the hazard but rely on persuading consumers to alter their behavior in some way to avoid the hazard. . . .
Even if warnings could effectively communicate the ingestion hazard, the consequences of ingesting magnets, and appropriate hazard-avoidance measures, warnings still may not be effective if consumers do not concur with the content of the warning. . . .
So, let’s get this straight. According to the CPSC, warnings don’t work. Even if they could, the consumer may not agree with the warned-about hazard. As such, we should just take an alleged hazardous product out of the marketplace rather than use them. Huh? Tell that to all of those product manufacturers who have been found liable in civil suits due to a failure to warn. The modicum of the CPSC’s logic is that even the best warnings may be ignored by consumers. We get that. But, it ignores the whole concept of common sense and self-policing. It is true that young children may be unable to read and appreciate a product warning, but where do the parents come into play? Don’t have Buckyballs at the house if you have small children. Problem solved. No reason to resort to the multi-year draconian campaign.
While this latest development is a final ruling of the CPSC, we doubt that this is the last chapter in the saga. Even when new desktop magnets emerge in compliance with the rule, the CPSC will undoubtedly find something to complain about. And, we will be right here to write about it.