Videos: What Are Zen Magnets and Why Is the Federal Government Banning Them?

This week's cover story, "Magnetic Attraction," tells the tale of Zen Magnets, a Denver company founded in 2009 by University of Colorado grad Shihan Qu. The company sells -- you guessed it -- magnets. But these aren't just any magnets. They're tiny, high-powered spherical magnets that can be used to build everything from complex geometric shapes (octahedron cuboctahedron honeycomb, anyone?) to replicas of Super Mario Bros. characters. And last month, they were banned by the federal government.

Below, we've compiled several videos that help tell the story of Zen Magnets.

See also: Denver's Zen Magnets Is Fighting the Federal Government Over Its Ban of Tiny Magnet Balls

The Consumer Product Safety Commission considers these small magnets, sometimes called rare-earth or neodymium magnets, to be dangerous. Though the magnets are meant for adults, kids have gotten a hold of them and swallowed them, which can cause devastating bowel injuries when the magnets attract inside of their digestive tracts.

The CPSC tried to get magnet companies to stop selling them voluntarily and when that didn't completely work, it went after them on two fronts: a lawsuit and a ban. Qu and other magnet sellers fought back, but after more than two years, Qu is the last one still battling.

Below are several videos that explain what Zen Magnets are, show how they're used and illustrate the fight between magnet companies and the federal CPSC.

This is one of the first videos Zen Magnets posted to YouTube:

Zen Magnets also sells colored magnet spheres called Neoballs:

After leading magnet company Buckyballs threatened Qu for claiming Zen Magnets were higher-quality than Buckyballs, Qu (that's him in the 3-D glasses) responded via video:

Continue for more videos, including some addressing the potential hazards. The CPSC began getting reports of kids swallowing magnets in 2010 -- and the number of reports grew each year. Here's one child's story, as told by the Today show:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

It wasn't just toddlers who were swallowing magnets. Teens were swallowing them too, often while using the magnets to mimic tongue piercings. So the CPSC hired a teen actor and made a safety video in an attempt to curb that behavior:

But the agency notes that how-to videos made by teenagers instructing other teenagers how to use magnets to fake piercings continued to get more views:

Continue for more videos, including some made by Zen Magnet users. In the summer of 2012, the CPSC decided to pursue a ban of small neodymium magnets and to sue the three magnet companies -- Zen, Buckyballs and Magnicube -- that hadn't agreed to voluntarily stop sales. Here's how Buckyballs initially responded:

In May 2014, Buckyballs founder Craig Zucker agreed to recall his products. In August, Magnicube followed suit. Only Zen Magnets has refused to settle the lawsuit. In September, the CPSC dealt Qu and Zen Magnets another blow when its commissioners voted 4-0 in favor of the ban. It will go into effect on April 1, 2015.

Qu says he'll soldier on, fighting both the lawsuit and the ban. Many loyal magnet fans are behind him. Here are some videos made by Zen Magnets users over the past five years:

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at [email protected]

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar