Zen Magnets Calls It Quits After New Ruling in Eight-Year Fight

Shihan Qu says Zen Magnets will be out of business by December 21 after a federal appeals court upheld a stop-sales order.
Shihan Qu says Zen Magnets will be out of business by December 21 after a federal appeals court upheld a stop-sales order. Anthony Camera
After a costly eight-year legal battle with the federal government, Zen Magnets is suspending sales of its BB-sized magnets and closing up shop. But Shihan Qu, who started the company out of his home in Boulder in 2009, says the demise of his business won't solve the child-safety issues that the seesaw litigation was supposed to address.

Zen Magnets attracted an ardent following with its tiny balls, many times more powerful than kitchen magnets and useful for fidgeting, as an educational tool, or for making sculptures and complex geometric shapes. But officials at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission sought to ban such products, known as small rare-earth magnets or SREMS, as a safety hazard because of reports of children accidentally ingesting the spheres; once swallowed, the magnets can cause serious injury by pinching or perforating tissue as they seek to adhere to each other. Under pressure from the CPSC, almost all of Zen's early competitors stopped offering the magnets. But Qu, who'd never marketed his magnets to children, increased the warnings on his packages and challenged the agency's attempt to ban his product.

An administrative law judge rejected the product safety agency's argument that Zen Magnets were too dangerous to be marketed to adults. The CPSC passed a new "magnet safety standard" directed entirely at Qu's business, only to have it overturned by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals — the first court-ordered reversal of a product ban in decades. But then the CPSC declared that the "foreseeable misuse" of Qu's magnets made them defective. In 2017 the agency issued an order requiring Zen to not only stop sales, but to make an effort to recall every high-powered magnet it had ever sold and notify consumers of the dangers.

A few months later, U.S. District Judge Brooks Jackson ruled that Zen Magnets had been deprived of due process and halted the stop-sale order. But last summer, Jackson's ruling was overturned by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, leading to Qu's decision to cease operations on December 21, the date the stop-sales order is to become effective.

Reports of children ingesting small magnets have increased significantly since the CPSC's new safety standard was stalled four years ago. Qu maintains that the multiple warnings and child-protective features he's added to his product have been effective, and that the real culprits in the surge are upstart companies that have come into the market since 2016 and peddle their products as toys, with little regard for safety issues. The irony of less conscientious companies continuing to prosper while Zen is scuttled isn't lost on Qu, who spent much of his profits on legal costs and at one point had to incinerate more than 400,000 magnets to comply with a court order. 

"The incoming stop sale will not affect any other manufacturer or distributor of magnet spheres, including the many that still don't include any warnings or child-resistant features or even those that explicitly — and illegally — sell high-powered magnets as children's toys with little to no enforcement from the CPSC," he notes. "Essentially, we must stop because we were the ones that stood up." 
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast