The Checkout

Magnets -- Not to be Toyed With

Yesterday, in the basement of a church on Capitol Hill, Alison Cassady of U.S. PIRG made her way through this year's assortment of dangerous toys highlighted in the group's latest "Trouble in Toyland" report.

With a group of toddlers playing -- with safe toys of course -- a few feet away, Cassady emphasized that the vast majority of toys in the U.S. today are safe. The number of toy-related injuries has declined significantly from 255,100 in 2001 to 202,300 in 2005.

There are always, however, toys that slip through the cracks and onto store shelve. Cassady found unsafe toys at all price points, at Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and at dollar stores.

Unsafe toys fell into several categories. Some didn't meet or came close to not meeting federal government small parts standards, which aim to protect kids under age 3 from choking hazards. Other toys were strangulation hazards, in particular water yo-yo balls, which have been banned in other parts of the world, but not here, with the exception of the state of Illinois.

U.S. PIRG also singled out toys so loud they could cause damage to children's hearing, such as a toy "assault machine" gun that hits 100 decibels at close range.

Jewelry made with lead was another potential danger the report focused on. In February, a four-year old child died after swallowing a bracelet charm that contained 99 percent lead. There are federal standards for lead in children's products, but somehow toxic items still make it onto the market.

Finally, U.S. PIRG honed in on magnetic toys. Not the letter magnets on your refrigerator but neodymium iron boron (NIB) magnets, which are small and very powerful. They are found in children's building sets and in jewelry. If a child swallows more than one, the attraction between the magnets can pinch internal organs and perforate the lining of the stomach and intestines and cause death.

As my former colleague Caroline Mayer has written in the past, the toy committee of the international standard-setting organization, ASTM International, met in September to discuss new labeling standards and also a requirement for additional testing of magnetic toys. That process, though on a fast track, is still chugging along and Joan Lawrence of the Toy Industry Association told me yesterday that her best guess was it will take another two months before new standards are approved.

What consumers will see of ASTM's work is a label on magnetic toys that warn of the potential health hazards if the toys are swallowed.

The labels, unfortunately, will appear too late for three children who swallowed magnets that fell out of Polly Pocket magnetic play sets. All three suffered intestinal perforations and were hospitalized.

Mattel, in cooperation with the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission yesterday announced a voluntary recall of 2.4 million of the playsets sold between May 2003 and September 2006. The recall doesn't affect playsets on the market now, which have had "quality control enhancements," said CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese.

The play sets being recalled are: the Polly Pocket Polly Place Hanging' Out House; the Polly Pocket Polly Place Treetop Clubhouse; the Polly Pocket Spa Day; Polly Totally Polly Place Totally Tiki Diner; the Polly Pocket Quik-Clik Boutique; the Polly Pocket Quik-Clik City Pretty Playset; the Polly Pocket Quik-Clik Sporty Style Playset; and the Polly Pocket Totally Zen Playset.

The magnets involved were a mere 1/8 of an inch in diameter.

Mattel's recall comes eight months after MEGA Brands recalled almost four million Magnetix Building Sets after a 22-month old died, three other children were hospitalized and a fourth had two magnets removed from his lung.

MEGA Brands re-designed the product, put warning labels on them, and now markets them to kids 6 and older.

The thing about recalls is, they don't always work as well as intended. According to U.S. PIRG, so far the company has received 13,000 requests for replacements. That means the overwhelming majority of the sets are still out there. And the group was able to find old stock without warning labels on store shelves as recently as a few weeks ago.

So be sure to keep an eye out for Magnetix builder sets as well as the Polly Pocket play sets.

If you need more information on the Mattel recall, you can call the company's recall Hotline: (888) 597-6597.

Do you make it a habit to scan recall lists for toys your child already owns, or before you head to the toy store each year for new ones?

By Annys Shin |  November 23, 2006; 9:00 AM ET Consumer News
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Do not bother subscribing to the Washington Post if you live in Lexington Park, MD.

I have not had a paper delivered for the last two weeks, the delivery subcontractor does not acknowledge or return phone calls, and neither does the Washington Post.

Don't waste your money paying for a product not delivered.

Posted by: Don't Bother | November 22, 2006 9:37 AM

Don't Bother: That's why I read the Post online ;-)

Ironic this blog talks about customer service from other companies, but the Post sounds like it needs to look internally at its own track record, winks. I'd love to read a piece by Annys on the Post's consumer woes...

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | November 22, 2006 10:46 AM

Search at the Post on Polly Pockets and you will find Annys Shin's companion piece - her original news article on the Mattel Polly Pocket recall, and I posted a different comment there.

Search on Magnets Can Kill and you can read/watch more info that has been collected by concerned families about magnets in Polly Pockets, Magnetix (and Magna Man, Magwheels, Magnasaurs, Mag Warrior, etc. etc. from MEGA Brands), and just in general the new danger that needs to be perceived in relation to NIB magnets if they are swallowed by a child.

Annys Shin's blog above breaks the news that the U.S. PIRG received updated statistics on the Magnetix voluntary replacement program - only 13,000 replaced out of 3.8 million sold! I agree it doesn't sound like a very effective recall effort agreed to by the CPSC and Rose Art. Hopefully the Polly Pocket magnetic sets recall will be well publicized and parents will make sure to actually return the sets their girls have in their closets and playrooms.

Since there were 2 million Polly sets sold overseas, I wonder if Mattel is willing for families worldwide to return their previously purchased sets for a refund/voucher? Their website form only covers the US and Canada.

Posted by: A Parent | November 22, 2006 3:15 PM

You should know that I bought a Magnetix set just a couple of weeks ago at my local AC Moore. The product was right at the front of the store by the cash registers. That sure doesn't sound like an effective recall to me!

They say the company has repackaged the product with labeling "Ages 6 and up," but I'm still planning to return mine. Although my son is 9, he has ADHD and issues with impulse control - and I am NOT willing to take that chance.

Posted by: Loren W | November 27, 2006 3:13 PM

I played with magnets my entire childhood. My 3 yr old son plays with magnets. He has, on occasion, put pieces of lint or trash in his mouth, but I've made it very clear that metal or magnets are not allowed in his mouth and they've never gone in and there has never been a problem. Polly Pocket is a 15 year old product at least. As a parent, I blame the parents. Are the kids playing in the family room unsupervised? Then anything is a hazard. Move the laptop into the family room, move the kids into the kitchen, either/or, but there are no other options.

Posted by: Bethesdan | November 28, 2006 4:10 PM

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