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The Chicago Tribune ran a disheartening article today on the saga of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Magnetix toy magnets, and children.

The story detailed the agency’s receipt of complaints about children suffering serious injuries to their intestines after swallowing the tiny magnets. The kind of magnets used in Magnetix are not tthe traditional rubbery magnets used for refrigerator magnets, but are smaller and are a shiny metallic color. They are also much more powerful than refrigerator magnets and can link together through the walls of a child’s intestines.

When this happens, the intestines can be cut, resulting in gangrene and possibly death for the child unless emergency surgery is performed in time. However, the symptoms of the injuries resulting from swallowing the magnets mimic ordinary stomach maladies, leading parents and even doctors to delay proper treatment.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is supposed to be America’s consumer watchdog. It has regulatory responsibility for a vast array of consumer products ranging from children’s toys to home tools. Unfortunately, the agency is understaffed and underfunded to do the job properly.

When the agency receives a consumer complaint, it has discretion as to whether to investigate a particular product. If no investigation is opened, then it normally forwards the complaint to the product manufacturer. There were a number of complaints about Magnetix toy magnets before the first fatality. Unfortunately, neither the agency or the manufacturer considered a recall until after a child was killed as a result of swallowing the magnets.

The risk of having a child swallow small parts is one of the hazards which toy manufacturers must consider in putting their products to market. The agency and the manufacturer failed this child badly.

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