Our corporate neighbor, Amazon, has the chance to be a national hero by taking a moral position against a small group of companies that are trading kids’ lives for the sake of profit.
The issue involves magnets, toys and what appears to be a highly cynical approach by a cabal of toy manufacturers and their lobbyists to effectively set the stage for dozens — or even hundreds — of children to be catastrophically injured or killed by patently unsafe toys.
Those of us here in Seattle remember the first chapter of this story back in 2005, when rare-earth magnets began showing up in kids’ toys and the inevitable happened — children began putting the smaller than Cheerio-sized magnets in their mouths and accidentally swallowing them.
Any parent knows kids will put almost anything in their mouths, and most parents also know that the majority of these objects — pennies, marbles or small toys — are harmless. But that is not the case with rare-earth magnets, which are often 10 times stronger than ordinary magnets.
When children swallow more than one of them, a life-threatening event is set in motion: The magnets are attracted to each other, most often through the walls of the intestines, blocking the intestinal pathways and cutting off blood flow. The intestinal walls begin to break down where the magnets are connected and holes, called fistulas, develop, allowing bacteria inside the intestines to leak out into the abdominal cavity, which can be fatal.
If parents recognize the symptoms and get the child to the ER in time, and if the physicians identify the blockage through imaging, the child will need emergency surgery to remove the magnets. If not, he or she can die a tragically horrible death.
I’ve seen this firsthand; I’ve represented families holding the magnetic-toy manufacturers accountable, and as a parent I cannot forget the faces of the parents who’ve lost a child from something as seemingly innocent as a small magnet.
In that case, right here in Seattle, a toddler — who was too young to talk — swallowed two of the small magnets, and hours later became ill. The parents took the child to a hospital, which incorrectly concluded the child had the flu. A few hours later, magnet-induced blockage caused fistulas to develop, flooding the abdominal cavity with bacteria. While the hospital continued to treat the child for flu symptoms, he died hours later of sepsis.
When stories like this were repeated across the country as these toys first became popular around 2005 and kids began showing up in emergency rooms, the Consumer Product Safety Commission made the right call to ban manufacturers from producing any magnetic toy that didn’t meet sensible safety standards.
That decision by the commission made two things happen. First, the number of kids being admitted in ERs for swallowing magnets dropped precipitously.
Second, it hurt rare-earth magnet manufacturers’ bottom line, so they found a way around the commission’s action by marketing the magnets to adults and including safety warnings, avoiding commission oversight. Of course, injuries to kids began to skyrocket, so in 2011 the commission again stepped in, extending the rules to ban even magnet-based products ostensibly marketed to adults, and surprisingly all the manufacturers stood down — except one.
This company, Zen Magnets, did what has become a tried-and-true practice: It launched a well-funded lobbying campaign led by a former commissioner who had served on the Consumer Product Safety Commission. A lawsuit was filed voicing an egregiously false narrative, that the commission’s actions — which had demonstrably saved kids’ lives — were somehow an affront to free trade.
In a 2016 decision, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals bought the argument and ordered the ban to be lifted, and as expected, kids began swallowing magnets and again showing up in emergency rooms. When the ban was lifted, there remained no regulations in place regarding the sale of rare-earth magnets. The marketplace was flooded with products, some targeted for adults, but many clearly marketed as toys for children. The National Poison Data System reported it expects the number of rare-earth cases in children to top 1,580 in 2019 once reporting is complete, up from around 260 cases in 2016 just as the ban was lifted.
So how do we fix this?
First, I have written our U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and have asked them to introduce legislation that would outlaw the use of rare-earth magnets without the common-sense steps put forward by the CPSC.
Second, I have sent a letter calling upon Amazon, our corporate Seattle neighbor, to take a position of moral leadership and immediately stop selling these inherently dangerous items until we can forge a more forceful solution through legislation. Amazon’s outsized influence in the retail market can save children’s lives.
Quite literally, Amazon can prevent unnecessary child deaths across the country with a few keystrokes.