Federal agency targets Denver magnet company with no history of injury

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In the wake of the mass shooting in Aurora a month ago, gun-control advocates in Colorado and across the country have upped the ante in pushing for stricter policies. And at the same time, some people in Denver are wondering why the federal government is trying to shut down a local business that sells a different kind of allegedly dangerous product.

Tiny magnet balls.

Zen Magnets, a company based in Denver, is now facing an administrative complaint from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal agency that claims the small magnets Zen sells are a serious safety hazard. The CPSC is pushing the business to notify consumers and recall its products.

This CPSC case has already made headlines at the Denver Post, Fox31 and even got a mention in a recent New York Times article. But what hasn't been reported is the relatively surprising fact that in the history of all administrative complaints by the CPSC, this could be the very first in which a company being targeted has no record of injuries. So it seems strange that a federal agency is devoting resources to stopping this company's products, which are 5mm super-magnet balls essentially used as stress relievers and building blocks for sculptures.

"I'm frustrated, angry and a little bit scared," says Shihan Qu, the 25-year-old owner of Zen Magnets. "I'm scared personally because my business, my baby, is in danger."

Qu, who was previously based in Boulder, says that he looked up all past administrative complaints through the federal registry and could not find a single example of a company targeted that didn't have some sort of history of injuries. It would appear that Zen Magnets is only the eighth business to receive this kind of complaint, and the ones on record all followed reports of injuries, or even deaths in some cases.

As Qu notes in a petition he has set up to save his business, the CPSC is going after all magnet companies that manufacture or distribute these kinds of products that can be very dangerous if swallowed. Maxfield & Oberton Holdings, which creates Buckyballs, has also faced an administrative complaint, though its product has been the focus of reports of injuries. But Qu says that his target market is not children, and he attributes his clean safety record in part to the fact that he only sells online, which means the magnets aren't getting into the hands of children. His products, he says, are generally used by consumers who understand the magnets and actively seek them out.

The CPSC says it is being proactive in stopping a very serious safety hazard. As it writes in its complaint against Zen Magnets:

If two or more of the magnets are ingested and their magnetic forces pull them together, the magnets can pinch or trap the intestinal walls or other digestive tissue between them resulting in acute and long-term health consequences. Magnets that attract through the walls of the intestines result in progressive tissue injury, beginning with local inflammation and ulceration, progressing to tissue death, then perforation or fistula formation. Such conditions can lead to infection, sepsis, and death.

"We do not want to be an agency that simply waits for more injuries to occur before we act," says CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson. "We are alleging that there is a defect with their product. We don't want to wait for the next child to end up in emergency services."

For some perspective on the CPSC's history, the most recent administrative complaint before the CPSC began targeting magnets dates back to 2001 against a company called Daisy Manufacturing Company, which makes BB guns. As that complaint notes, there were cases of at least 15 deaths and 171 serious injuries, including brain damage and permanent paralysis caused by defects in this company's powerline airguns. And most affected were children under the age of 18.

Another action against Red Devil gas grills from the CPSC came after 44 reports of consumers suffering burns to legs, hands and fingers, including some instances of third degree burns -- after the grills collapsed during use.

Continue reading for further responses from the CPSC and letters of support for Zen Magnets.

Because of the nature of these past cases, Qu -- who recently hired a lawyer to fight this case -- says it seems illogical that the CPSC is devoting so many resources to stopping his company's products.

"It's very clear to me that I'm a distinct target," Qu says. "My product is similar to those that have been ingested...despite the fact that my market is very different."

Wolfson says that many companies have already complied with their requests. "This is a situation where eleven manufacturers and importers have already stepped up and done the right thing for child safety and agreed to stop making, importing and selling these high-powered magnetic products."

It's not just young children that are at risk, Wolfson adds, pointing out that adolescents sometimes use two of these small magnetic balls to make fake tongue piercings, which can lead to them accidentally swallowing them, forcing them to go to the hospital.

Wolfson says that it does in fact appear that in the case of administrative cases, all past suits of the commission have involved companies with some history of injuries. But he points us to a 1983 civil complaint filed by the United States Attorney on behalf of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, against the sale of charcoal lighter fuel sold in faulty packaging. In this case, which was not filed directly as an administrative complaint, he believes there was no history of injury.

These magnets are Qu's entire business, which is why he has been talking to reporters and collecting letters to try and pressure the CPSC to back off. The case will eventually go to an administrative law hearing.

As Qu continues to try and drum up support for his business, many of the letters written in support have in fact made analogies to gun control. One from late July reads:

Not more than a week ago there was a fatal shooting that occurred in a movie theater injuring and killing several people, including children. I have not heard a single word to ban of sales of the AR-15 that was used in the attack; a gun that 10 years ago would have been illegal to obtain. Each and every year children die because of firearms in the home. Why has the CPSC not required gun owners to lock up their weapons and provide proof of this, especially if they have children in the home?

Another says, "Do not take this fun and educational product away from all of us who enjoy them responsibly. Cars and guns kill far more children every year than magnet spheres ever could."

And this one: "Someone needs to make a gun that shoots Buckyballs, then we can buy them again."

For his part, Qu says it does seem the gun comparisons really do put his case in perspective. "It's outrageous...How can America be so gung ho about weapons and then go and ban [these magnets]?"

Wolfson points out that a lot of the comparisons made in these letters relate to areas that the CPSC simply doesn't regulate. For example, the CPSC doesn't have jurisdiction over handguns, he says.

He also says that in some cases, the injuries resulting from magnets are sometimes as serious as those caused by bullets.

"The injury pattern is like a gunshot wound to the gut with no sign of entry or exit," he says, adding, "We say that with a great deal of sensitivity to what happened in Aurora."

More from our Business archive: "Photos: Gates Rubber factory -- urban explorers' dream or urban nightmare?"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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