Most of us remember magnet sets as toy box and classroom staples when we were growing up. Their ability to engage and teach young users about polarity, electronic currents and positive and negative reactions made them educational as well as fun—a fantastic combination for toy makers looking to market the sets to children and their parents.
But just like those of us who played with them, magnets grew up over the years.
In the later half of the 2000s, a new breed of magnet hit the shelves. Marketed as "desk toys" for adults, these small, extremely powerful earth magnets could be arranged in any number of intricate or interesting sculptures. This new take on an old favorite proved to be a hit with the public and the desk toys began selling like hotcakes. Even though these were meant for adults, the small, shinny and incredibly powerful magnets also were enticing to young children and quickly began finding their way into the hands of toddlers.
And as any parent will tell you, what finds its way into a toddler's hand will eventually end up in his or her mouth.
Unlike their magnetic building set, the toy predecessors—which were often too big to swallow—these new desk toys were small enough where several could fit in a child's mouth, or down his esophagus. And once digested, they can wreak havoc on the swallower's intestinal tract.
"When swallowed these desk toy magnets go through the normal digestion process, with one exception," says Lois Lee, MD, attending physician in the emergency department, and co-author of a recent report chronicling a dangerous rise in magnet ingestion. "Once in the intestines, the individually swallowed magnets have a strong enough pull to reconnect inside the child's body, often pinching, tearing and boring their way through intestinal tissue in the process. The only way to treat this problem is with surgery to remove the magnets and repair the damaged intestines."
In addition to being painful, these injuries are often hard to diagnose quickly, leading to prolonged discomfort and damage to the intestine. The result of the tearing presents with symptoms similar to the flu, like stomach pains, vomiting and the occasional fever. Because most of the children who swallow the magnet sets are too young to explain what had happened, the parents and doctors who initially notice the child often assume he or she has a simple virus. In some cases, it takes several days after the magnets are ingested, with the children becoming progressively sicker, before an x-ray is ordered. (X-rays are the primary way the swallowed magnets can be detected.)
Unfortunately, by the time the x-ray exposes the magnets, a good deal of damage could have already occurred. Many cases in Lee's report required surgery to remove the re-connected magnets and then additional surgery to repair the intestine lining that had be torn and bored through. There have even been some deaths reported when the child developed an infection, a complication of the damaged intestines.
To protect against such injury, most desk toy magnet sets explain on their packaging that they aren't meant for children. But according to Lee's study, the warnings fell on deaf ears. The report shows that from 1996 to 2003 cases of magnet ingestion were fairly stable, with a slight rise from 2003 to 2007. Then, from 2007 to 2012—when the sale of desktop magnets sets skyrocketed—so did the related injuries. Visits to Boston Children's Emergency Department for rare earth magnets injuries almost tripled in just five years.
"It's likely that in many cases the magnets were seen as toys, so parents weren't as concerned about them being around children as they may have been with other items associated with injury," says Lee. "But the damage caused by these magnets can be quite painful, even fatal, if not recognized in time. Parents of young children should look at this type of rare earth magnets in the same way they'd look at scissors or an electrical appliance—keep away from young children at all costs."
But it wasn't just small children who were hurting themselves. Lee's report points to other cases where preteens and teenagers took advantage of the magnets' increased power to fasten fake nose, cheek or tongue piercings, which ended as swallowed magnets and/or damaged tissue.
Lee and colleagues hope their peer-reviewed data will be enough reason for parents and teachers to think twice about keeping the rare earth magnet toys in an area where children can access them.
"A near three-fold increase of painful and potentially life threatening injuries is significant, and we want adults to know just how dangerous these earth magnets can be," she says. "At the end of the day, all we really want to do is spare children from a painful, potentially serious injury, which is 100 percent avoidable. In addition, if the companies producing these items see the damage the sets have already done, they might be more agreeable to putting larger, more clearly defined warnings on their packages."