Small Magnets Causing Serious Injuries, Death In Children

August 6, 2012


If it looks pretty, it’s a toy, and if it’s little, it might be candy. Young children will put anything in their mouths, including shiny, highly powerful magnets smaller than a pea.

Since reports began to surface in 2002, more cases of magnet ingestion and injury have been reported by the Centers for Disease Control each year. Recently, a 3-year-old girl in Oregon swallowed 37 high-powered “Buckyball” magnets, demonstrating just how easy (and dangerous) it is for children to ingest these objects.

How do the magnets cause injury?

Buckyballs (magnets) X-ray diagram

  • Despite new labels on magnet packages, injuries including bowel perforation, twisted bowel and severe infection have continued.
  • The attractive force of these neodymium magnets is remarkable. After a child swallows more than one magnet or another piece of metal, the attractive force allows the magnets in the intestine to find each other, regardless of the bowel wall, and stick together with great strength.
  • Although the tissue of the intestinal tract is tough, it’s no match for these magnets. Once magnetically attached across the bowel wall, they do not break apart. If the magnets stay attached for long enough, perforation of the bowel can and often does occur.

So what can parents do?

  • Keep tiny ultra-powerful magnets out of the reach of infants and toddlers.
  • Educate your older children and teens about the risks of swallowing these magnets. These magnets are not children’s toys.
  • If your toddler or child swallows these magnets, immediately call your doctor or go to the emergency department.

What should pediatricians know?

  • Pediatricians need to be aware of the danger of these powerful magnets and educate their patients’ families.
  • If a child is suspected of swallowing more than one magnet or a magnet and another piece of metal, emergency evaluation is required.
  • Initial X-ray evaluation cannot determine the exact location or whether the bowel wall is compressed between the magnets. As such, if the magnet location is amenable to endoscopy, it should be removed.
  • Serial X-rays may be employed if the magnets are moving through the gastrointestinal track.

Despite several well-publicized national efforts to keep these dangerous magnets out of the hands of children, the ingestions continue, many with serious, life-long and costly consequences. It is clear that greater effort is needed to protect our children and prevent these unnecessary injuries.

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