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Denver's Zen Magnets Wins Motion to Temporarily Lift Feds' Magnet-Ball Ban

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A nationwide ban on tiny magnet balls has been temporarily lifted.

The ban went into effect on April 1, though only briefly. That afternoon, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a temporary stay while it considers a motion by Denver-based Zen Magnets to lift the ban permanently. Shihan Qu, the founder of Zen Magnets, sees the ruling as an incremental victory in the company's ongoing legal battle against the federal government. 

"It’s good news," he says. The court could have kept the ban in place while it considered the legal arguments, he adds, but it didn't. He thinks that's a good sign.

"It makes the long-term seem a lot brighter," Qu says.

The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission voted in September 2014 to ban high-powered BB-shaped magnets, which can be used to make complex shapes and are often marketed as adult desk toys. But the agency's campaign against the magnets began years earlier, when it started getting reports of bowel injuries in children who swallowed them. The magnets would attract inside the children's digestive tracts, sometimes ripping holes in their intestines. In 2012, a nineteen-month-old girl died after swallowing magnets.

That year, the CPSC contacted thirteen U.S. magnet companies, including Zen Magnets, and requested that they stop importing and selling the small magnets, which often came in sets of 216. Ten companies agreed. The three that did not included Zen Magnets and the manufacturer of Buckyballs, which was the most popular magnet brand on the market. So the CPSC sued the three holdout companies in order to force them to recall their products. The agency also started the process of banning future sales.

Two of the magnet companies eventually settled with the CPSC. But Qu has refused to back down. He doesn't think the magnets are inherently dangerous.

"These magnets are not dangerous at all unless they're swallowed," he told us last year in an interview for a cover story on Zen Magnets' battle against the feds. "That it's inevitable that they will be swallowed is not at all proven. It's only assumed by the CPSC, and they're acting completely on that assumption."

Qu argued that position at a court hearing in the case this past December. The judge hasn't ruled yet.

Qu also decided to fight the ban. On April 1 at about 2 p.m., Qu says his attorney filed a motion to stay enforcement of the CPSC's magnet safety standard, which bans the import and manufacture of the BB-sized magnets. Just before 5 p.m. that same day, the appeals court issued the temporary stay. Qu was shocked that it moved so quickly.

"I did not suspect that the court would return with a response three hours later," he says.

The court has given the CPSC until April 14 to respond to Qu's motion. 

For now, Qu is not selling Zen Magnets. The company had been winding down in anticipation of the ban, Qu says — and even though the ban has been temporarily lifted, he doesn't think it'd be wise to ramp up again. For one thing, he says it takes several months from the time he orders the magnets from China to the time they arrive in Colorado.

"We simply cannot risk driving full speed in the dark without knowing if a wall lies ahead," he wrote in a statement that he e-mailed to the press. "Normal online availability of Zen Magnets will return when possible, likely in time for the holidays."

Read the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling below.

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