High-powered “rare earth” magnets are colorful, fun-to-fiddle-with desk toys for adults. They may also be found in jewelry and in children’s toys from several years ago. But they’re also highly dangerous when in the wrong hands — or mouths.
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Magnet ingestion rates in children have been on the rise due to the growing popularity of magnet toys. Since 2010, there have been at least 43 incidents, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) — 19 this year alone.
When accidentally swallowed, these small bead-like magnets can twist intestines, causing bowel ulcerations, intestinal damage, perforations, blood poisoning and even death.
Marsha Kay, MD, Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital Chair of Pediatric Gastroenterology, and her colleagues have seen it themselves. She and a group of pediatric gastroenterologists went to Capitol Hill in June to share their insights during a public hearing with the CPSC.
Since then, the CPSC has asked retailers and manufacturer to stop selling the magnets, calling them a “substantial product hazard.” Even with warning labels, too many children are in danger.
“Kids swallow things all the time — coins, earrings, pins — and less than one percent of the time, they need to be surgically removed,” says Dr. Kay. “But these magnets pose a greater threat. Up to one-third of cases require surgery.”
Because the magnets attract each other, when more than one is swallowed, they can wreak havoc in a child’s bowel. For example, one magnet stuck in the small intestine and another stuck in the colon can attach to each other through bowel walls, potentially cutting off blood supply or tearing a hole in the bowel, allowing waste to leak into the body.
“It can make a child extremely sick,” says Dr. Kay. “If blood is cut off from a large portion of the intestine and it dies and needs to be removed, the child may never be able to eat normally again.”
At first, a child may have no symptoms or only mild abdominal pain or vomiting. But if a parent suspects a child has swallowed a magnet, they should see a doctor immediately for X-rays. Depending on the number of magnets and their location in the bowel, they may be able to be removed with a minimally invasive endoscopic procedure. Others may require immediate surgery.
Dr. Kay’s advice to parents: Get rid of magnet ball toys, even those marketed to adults.
“Accidentally swallowing these magnets can have horrible consequences,” says Dr. Kay. “The only way to completely prevent them is to eliminate the toy altogether.”