High-powered magnets are among the most dangerous consumer products available today. They started showing up in children’s toys in the early 2000s and in desk sets in 2008. These small, shiny magnets made from powerful rare earth metals have led to thousands of serious child injuries since they arrived on the market. They are so strong that if more than one is swallowed, they can attract to each other across tissue, cutting off blood supply to the bowel and causing blockages, tissue injury, severe infection, and even death.
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 dangerous symptoms like abdominal pain begin - by then, the injury has occurred.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) found high-powered magnets dangerous enough that in 2012 they stopped the sale of high-powered magnet sets and instituted a recall, followed by a federal rule that effectively eliminated the sale of these products. This rule was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals in December 2016 and these magnet sets were allowed back on the market. When the ban was lifted in 2017, we saw a 400% increase in the number of magnet ingestions by children and the number of hospitalizations.
If you think a child has swallowed magnets, a simple call to the pediatrician to review symptoms may not be enough. In most cases, an X-ray will be needed to determine if they swallowed the magnets, where they are (stomach, intestines, etc.), and most importantly, how many. If there is more than one, it might require surgery or a procedure to remove them.
A 2022 study led by Dr. Leah Middelberg, published in the journal “Pediatrics,” found that the majority of children being treated for high-powered magnet-related injuries required hospitalization and nearly one in ten had a potentially life-threatening injury such as bowel blockage, holes in bowel, infection, bleeding, or dangerous twisting of the bowel. Nearly half of patients required a procedure, surgery, or both.
Though most cases of swallowed items occur in young children less than 5 years, older children and teenagers may also have injuries from these products, 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 magnets. The risk of injury is the same for teens as is it for younger children.
While the current law in the U.S. attempts to address this by requiring that high-powered magnet sets only be marketed to “adults” 14 years of age and older, nearly all care in the 2022 study was for children under 14 years of age. These data highlight the ease with which children access high-powered magnets. Despite being intended for use by older teens and adults, high-powered magnets frequently cause injury and lead to high need for procedures, repeated x-rays, and expensive hospitalizations in children of all ages.
The injuries caused by high-powered magnets are common, serious, and costly. Because damage caused by magnets can be serious, it’s so important to keep these kinds of magnets out of reach of children, and ideally out of the home.
If you think a child has swallowed any of these items, reach out to your child’s doctor or 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.
Laura Dattner is a research writer in the Center for Injury Research and Policy. With both a health communications and public health background, she works to translate pediatric injury research into meaningful, accurate messages which motivate the public to make positive behavior changes.
Leah Middelberg, MD
Dr. Middelberg is part of the physician team of Emergency Medicine and Pediatric Emergency Medicine Fellowship faculty at Nationwide Children's Hospital.
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