WASHINGTON – A standoff between the government and sellers of desktop magnet toys for adults escalated Tuesday, with federal consumer safety officials filing their second complaint to force a company to take the potentially dangerous product off the market.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission filed an administrative complaint against Zen Magnets, a Colorado-based company that imports and markets tiny but powerful magnets that can be molded into different shapes. Although the magnets are meant for adult use, the commission said they pose grave danger to youngsters who also play with them and to teenagers who use them mimic tongue, lip or cheek piercings.
If accidentally swallowed or inhaled, the magnets can pinch internal tissue, causing infection or even death.
Zen Magnets vowed to fight the complaint, which is similar to a lawsuit and will be heard by an administrative law judge. The company said its product has never caused any injuries.
Trying to take a product off the market entirely is a rare move for the commission, which usually works cooperatively with companies to stop the sale of hazardous products. Two weeks ago, the CPSC filed a similar complaint against Maxfield and Oberton, a New York-based manufacturer of "Buckyballs" magnets.
"Our action is not isolated to just one company," CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said. "We're trying to keep kids safe from this entire class of products."
The commission said 11 manufacturers and importers of the magnets have agreed voluntarily to take them off the market.
At least a dozen children have swallowed the magnets since 2009, the CPSC said, and some required surgery. None of the incidents involved those sold by Zen Magnets.
The commission's aggressive action raised questions about the government's authority to stop companies from selling products that, if used properly, are safe and legal.
"How much societal damage results from the slippery slope of absolving parents from the responsibility to read warnings?" Zen Magnets founder Shihan Qu wrote on his company's website, where Qu also published more than 40 letters from supporters urging the CPSC to rethink its decision.
In an interview, Qu accused the CPSC of trying to put his company out of business. He said the company has never marketed its product as a toy and includes warnings with the product about potential dangers.
The CPSC, in its complaint, argued the opposite. It said the company advertised the magnets as "fun to play with," and even referred to them in some packaging inserts as a "strong magnetic toy."
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