(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – High-powered magnets started showing up in children’s toys in the early 2000s and in desk sets in 2009. 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 obstructions, tissue necrosis, sepsis and even death.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) found them dangerous enough that in 2012 they halted 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.
A recent study led by researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Policy and Emergency Medicine at Nationwide Children’s Hospital along with 24 other children’s hospitals across the country looked at nearly 600 cases of high-powered magnet-related injuries in the three years after high-powered magnets re-entered the US market (2017 to 2019).
The study, published today in Pediatrics, found that the majority (56%) 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 obstruction, perforation, infection, bleeding, fistulae or volvulus. Many patients (46%) required an endoscopy, surgery or both. Children who require a surgical procedure, such as a laparotomy, will have an increased lifetime risk of adhesive bowel obstruction. Almost all care (96%) was the result of an ingestion (when a child swallowed at least one high-powered magnet).
“The injuries caused by high-powered magnets are common, serious and costly,” said Leah Middelberg, MD, lead author of the study and emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children’s. “These data suggest that high-powered magnets are among the most dangerous consumer products available today. 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.”
The study also showed that this is not just a problem for young children. The average patient age (7.6 years) was higher than that of most other foreign body ingestions. 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, 95% of care in this 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 those over 14 years of age, high-powered magnets frequently cause injury and lead to high need for invasive intervention and expensive hospitalization in children of all ages,” said Middelberg.
It is also important to note that while most cases and injuries occurred with “desk toy” size magnets (5 mm or less) – the focus of previous CPSC action – 33% of injuries to children in this study occurred with high-powered magnets larger than 5 mm. This suggests that future legislative action may warrant targeting these products, as well.
“The findings from this study reflect the urgent need to protect children of all ages by preventive measures and government action,” Middelberg emphasized. Middelberg supports the federal legislation, “Magnet Injury Prevention Act,” which would limit the strength and/or size of magnets sold as part of a set, as well as reinstatement of a CPSC federal safety standard for magnets that would effectively restrict the sale of these magnet products in the U.S. Comments on the Safety Standard for Magnets are open until late March, 2022.
Data for this study were obtained retrospectively from 25 children’s hospitals across the country and included patients evaluated for a confirmed high-powered magnet exposure in any clinical setting (i.e., inpatient, outpatient, emergency, or urgent care). States with a participating site included: Alabama, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, and Washington D.C. This study is a product of the IMPACT (Injuries, Morbidity, and Parental Attitudes Concerning Tiny high-powered magnets) research collaborative.
The Center for Injury Research and Policy (CIRP) of the Abigail Wexner Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital works globally to reduce injury-related pediatric death and disabilities. With innovative research at its core, CIRP works to continually improve the scientific understanding of the epidemiology, biomechanics, prevention, acute treatment, and rehabilitation of injuries. CIRP serves as a pioneer by translating cutting edge injury research into education, policy, and advances in clinical care. For related injury prevention materials or to learn more about CIRP, visit www.injurycenter.org. Follow CIRP on Twitter @CIRPatNCH.
Middelberg, L.K., Leonard, J.C., Shi, J., et al. High-Powered Magnet Exposures in Children: A Multi-Center Cohort Study, Pediatrics published online: Feb. 3, 2022 (doi: 0.1542/peds.2022.054543)