The holidays are coming. Children are happily making lists and parents are busy buying gifts, hoping to choose toys that will spark their children’s creative spirit. But with some of these toys there is a danger, especially for smaller children. Toys with high-powered magnets can be fun, exciting and educational, but what many parents don’t suspect is that they can be dangerous.
High-powered magnets use “rare earth” metals that are more powerful than the typical “refrigerator” magnets. Magnet toys have many, small, high-powered magnets that allow kids to make (and remake) flexible, creative shapes that are attractive and fun for a child.
The danger exists because the powerful magnets are small enough for a child to easily swallow several at once. Swallowing a high-powered magnet carries special risks if any other metal object, including another magnet, has been swallowed.
Initially, if a child swallows magnets there might be no symptoms, giving a false sense of relief. In some cases, the child may initially gag or look like they are choking on the toy, but this is not always the case. It may be many hours, or even days, before the dangerous symptoms like abdominal pain begin - by then, the injury has occurred.
Once inside the intestines, if another magnet or metal object is present, the magnet can lock onto it. If this happens next to the wall of the intestine it can cause enough damage that the weakened intestines can burst open. If the bowel bursts, it becomes a life-threatening surgical emergency, requiring an immediate trip to the operating room. However, in most cases the magnets still require surgical removal in the hospital even if they haven’t yet caused a perforation.
In 2014, a child died after ingesting multiple magnets. Because of this great risk, the toys were banned by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the US in 2014. After this ban we saw a decrease in injuries and hospital admissions from these magnets. When the ban was lifted in 2017 after a court case by the manufacturers, we have seen a 400% increase in the number of ingestions by children and the number of hospitalizations. In 2019 we expect to see more than 1600 children in the hospital from these magnets.
If you think a child has swallowed magnets checking for symptoms may not be enough. In most cases, an X-ray will be needed to determine if they swallowed the magnets, and where they are (stomach, intestines, etc.), and most importantly, how many. If there is more than one it might require abdominal surgery to remove them.
Older children and adolescents also swallow these toys, but for different reasons. In some cases they use them to pretend they have piercings, putting one magnet inside their cheek and one outside (the magnets are powerful enough to hold through the cheek wall) or pretend they have a tongue piercing (putting one magnet on top of the tongue and one on the bottom). This can cause them to accidentally swallow the magnet. The risk of injury is the same as is it for younger children.
If you think a child has swallowed any of these items, the first step is to call your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222. Since these items are particularly dangerous, swallowing them could mean a trip to the hospital.
Henry Spiller is the director of the Central Ohio Poison Center. He has spent more than 30 years in toxicology, with more than 300 publications in the field.
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