WASHINGTON – When a 9-year-old old boy accidentally swallowed several tiny round magnets in 2010, regulators turned to one of the most familiar tools in their arsenal: warning labels.
The boy wasnt hurt, but other cases kept surfacing, sometimes forcing kids into emergency rooms. The government learned of eight more incidents that year, another 17 last year and 25 this year – even after launching a public-service campaign warning that swallowing two or more of the balls can damage the digestive tract.
In response, the Consumer Product Safety Commission did what it has rarely done before. It gave up on the warnings and proposed an outright ban.
The push last month to take this category of BB-sized magnets off the market signals a broader rethinking of an approach that Washington has long relied on to flag the hazards of things from cigarettes to plastic bags.
The agency also successfully pushed for a recall of 4 million Bumbo baby seats last month after concluding that the warnings on those chairs did not adequately prevent the seats from being used in ways that could result in children falling and injuring themselves.
What youre getting into now is as much about the agencys philosophy on how to deal with risk as it is about safety, said Mike Gidding, a former CPSC attorney who specializes in product safety cases.
Commission Chairman Inez Tenenbaum said shes steering the agency in a new direction by trying to prevent deaths instead of just reacting to them.
I have made it clear to our staff that all of our regulatory options should be on the table when we seek to protect consumers from harm, Tenenbaum said in a statement.
Some of the earliest federally mandated warnings came in 1927 when Congress passed a law requiring poison labels on household products containing certain caustic or corrosive substances, according to a report by Exponent Failure Analysis Associates, a consulting firm. Warnings on drugs, medical devices and cosmetics followed a decade later.
But a warnings boom took place in the 1960s, giving rise to some of todays most familiar labels, the report said. Thats when words like danger and flammable and keep out of reach of children started appearing on entire categories of products with hazardous substances. Its also the decade that Congress mandated warnings for cigarettes.
Today, warnings are so pervasive that theyve become a nearly meaningless safety tool in some areas, more useful in protecting manufacturers against legal liability than in guarding consumers from harm, according to David Egilman, a clinical professor at Brown Universitys family medicine department who has researched industrys influence on warnings.
If everything you pick up has a warning on it, youre going to instinctively ignore all warnings, Egilman said. Thats the real problem.
Its the classic cry wolf situation, said Richard Thompson, a psychology and biological sciences professor at the University of Southern California. People exposed to the same stimulus without consequences are less likely to pay attention, he said.
Its a universal phenomenon we see in all animals, said Thompson, a member of the National Academy of Sciences. If you touch the sea anemone, its tentacles retract. Touch it again, and it contracts less. Touch it a few more times and it stops responding.
To deal with these challenges, the Consumer Product Safety Commission sometimes asks companies to rework their warning labels or display them more prominently. It occasionally demands a design change, as it did with Bumbo seats when the warning labels alone failed to curb injuries.
The Bumbo warning labels, which had been developed in coordination with the commission, cautioned against placing the molded foam seats on raised surfaces. Yet babies continued to squirm out of the seats and fall, sometimes fracturing their skulls, even with the seats on the floor.
Last month, Bumbo recalled the chairs and offered restraint belts that it created with input from the commission, the company said. Even with the belt, the firm still warns against using the seats on raised surfaces.
It is rare for the agency to go beyond warning labels and design fixes. Thats why the magnet issue has caused a stir.
The agency is pushing to ban these types of magnets, and 11 firms that sell them have agreed to stop doing so. But two have refused, including the distributor of Buckyballs, the dominant player in the U.S. market since 2009.
Nancy Nord, a CPSC commissioner, has urged the agency to think through the broader implications of the proposed ban, arguing that it is too early to tell whether the warnings are ineffective because the magnets – and their warnings – are relatively new to the market.
Not giving the warnings a chance to work would eviscerate many of the safety standards that the Commission (and Congress) have deemed acceptable, Nord said in a statement.