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Little magnets pose a huge health risk for kids

June 12, 2013

Grownups are entitled to their toys too, right? Maybe, but what happens when a toy that is meant for adults becomes a real danger for children?

These tiny, magnetic balls aren’t your average playthings. The high-powered magnets, known as neodymium magnets, rare earth magnets or by the brand name Buckyballs, are ten to twenty times stronger than a refrigerator magnet. The sheer force of their attraction to each other is what provides hours of mesmerizing entertainment. Adults often enjoy them as desk toys, much like stress balls or miniature zen gardens, to provide distraction and relaxation throughout the workday.

However, the allure of these shiny wonders isn’t lost on kids. Despite multiple warning labels on the packaging of these toys to keep them away from children, kids are ingesting the magnets with sometimes devastating consequences. Between 2011 and 2012, there were 102 cases reported, and nearly 80 percent of these children required endoscopy, surgery or both. The issue has become such a concern that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition as well as the Consumer Product Safety Commission have each voiced grave concern over the danger these products pose to children.

What makes these magnets so dangerous?

When more than one magnet is swallowed, their forceful affinity for one another is strong enough to attract through half an inch of skin, muscle or bone. Dr. Jeffrey Bornstein, Pediatric Gastroenterologist and Division Chief of the Arnold Palmer Hospital Center for Digestive Health and Nutrition, explains the risk children face if the magnets are swallowed:

“If the magnets separate, they can pass into different loops of the small bowel. They are powerful enough to attract each other through the bowel wall. This can result in the bowel wall being trapped between the magnets, and becoming necrotic (dying) and developing a perforation of the bowel.”

Once the magnets are swallowed, it’s important to catch it quickly. Damage to the bowel can occur within twelve hours after the magnets are swallowed. Dr. Bornstein recalls his own experience:

“In our practice, we have seen patients who have swallowed these magnets. We have been fortunate to catch it early, and we were able to remove them from the stomach via endoscopy before they travelled into the bowel. But, it’s important for parents to know what a serious hazard this poses to kids. Some children have died from complications of this type of accident.”

Older kids are at risk, too

When we talk about kids and accidental ingestion, we usually think of toddlers, and it’s true that children between the ages of 13 months and 6 years old are at greatest risk. However, these magnets are also being swallowed by teenagers. Teens place one magnet on either side of their tongue to simulate a tongue piercing, which can result in the teen swallowing the magnets by accident.

What should you do?

Often in the worlds of medicine and parenting, we are faced with complex decisions where we’re forced to weigh the risks and benefits, and there often isn’t a clear solution. Fortunately, this isn’t one of those. If you have these toys in your house, throw them away. Although they do bring enjoyment to adults, the risk to our kids just isn’t worth it.