LOS ANGELES >> Federal prosecutors charged 12 people and businesses this week with selling illegal and potentially dangerous cosmetic contact lenses, including some contaminated with a virulent strain of bacteria capable of blinding wearers, authorities said.
The charges stem from an investigation into the sales of cosmetic contact lenses without prescriptions in the weeks leading up to Halloween dubbed “Operation Cat Eyes,” Assistant United States Attorney Amanda Bettinelli said.
“The goal was to protect consumers in advance of Halloween,” Bettinelli said.
Cosmetic contact lenses used to change the wearer’s eye color have been growing in popularity, officials said. They range from subtle color changes to ornate designs. But while contact lenses are illegal to sell without a prescription, non-presciption, or “misbranded,” lenses have been increasingly popping up in beauty salons and costume stores.
“They’re so easily available, and they can do horrific injury to your eye in a short period of time,” Bettinelli said.
Without being properly fitted to each individuals eyes, contact lenses have the potential to cause abrasions, lesions and other serious injuries, Bettinelli explained.
There are no guarantees regarding the quality of the lenses or the conditions in which they are manufactured, which are sometimes “filthy,” she said. And in some cases, the lenses and the fluid they are stored in have been found to be contaminated with dangerous pathogens.
Mike Honabach, 45, of Highland is accused of selling lenses contaminated with a “particularly insidious” strain of bacteria at a booth at the recent Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona called Halloween and Party Discounters Inc., Bettinelli said.
Lenses seized from the booth in September, sold under the brand name “I Color Complete,” were found to be contaminated with the bacteria Bacillus cereus, the prosecutor said. No injuries had been directly linked to the contaminated batch of contact lenses.
“The Bacillus cereus bacterial strain can cause severe infections that, even with prompt treatment, can lead to blindness,” U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman Thom Mrozek said in a written statement.
Honabach is charged with introducing adulterated devices into interstate commerce, receipt of bacteria-adulterated contact lenses and sale of misbranded products. Honabach’s supplier, Intertrade Imports Inc. of Jacksonville, Florida, along with Intertrade manager Eunju Kang Savvidis, 53, of Jacksonville, are charged with introducing adulterated devices into interstate commerce, Mrozek said.
Eight other people and businesses are names as defendants for allegedly selling misbranded contact lenses to undercover investigators in the series of cases resulting from “Operation Cat Eyes.”
Doris Owusa Ansah, 53, of West Covina, who owns Sunset Beauty Salon in West Covina, is charged with selling misbranded contact lenses; CKL Fashion, Inc., a Corona company that operated a business called “T-Shirt Mart in Glendale, along with manager Young Kim, 51, of of La Cresenta is accused of selling misbranded contact lenses; Jung Rae Jo, 60, of Cerritos, who owns Fashion Young in Westminster, is accused of selling misbranded contact lenses; Halloween Superstore in Glendale, as well as owner Zinaida Khrimyan, 25, of Glendale and manager Patrick Abedi, 30, of Glendale, are accused of selling misbranded contact lenses; and Hong Kong-based Aspirational International Inc. is accused of selling misbranded contact lenses online.
All 12 people and businesses are scheduled to appear for arraignment hearings in federal court in Los Angeles Dec. 9, Mrozek said. If convicted, each defendants faces a maximum penalty of one year in federal prison and for each count, along with a $100,000 fine for individuals and $200,000 fine for corporations.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the California Department of Public Health and the California Department of Consumer affairs took part in the investigation.
PHOTOS courtesy of the U.S. Department of Justice