Beware of Magnetic Toys

Polly Pocket Pollywood Limo-Scene is shown in the office of Talbots Toyland in San Mateo, Calif., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2007. The toy store pulled off these items earlier in the day after it was listed on the toy recall list. Mattel recalled 9 million Chinese-made toys Tuesday, including Polly Pockets play sets and Batman action figures, because of dangers to children from lead paint or tiny magnets that could be swallowed. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Magnetic toys are attractive to everyone.  Parents want them for their kids because they’re science-related, encourage creativity, affordable, and can keep them occupied for hours. Kids want them because they are cool. These addictive toys can be used to construct endless shapes and patterns and even relieve stress. That's why magnets, in sets of 50 to 200, are also sold as desktop toys.  Tweens and teens also use magnets to create jewelry, and wear them to mimic tongue, lip, and nose piercings or studs.

Powerful magnets, made of neodymium-iron-boron, which are 10 to 20 times stronger than older magnets, called ferrite, have been increasingly available for purchase in the past few years.

Generally, most swallowed inedible objects or foreign bodies are not dangerous unless they get stuck such as bigger coins in the esophagus – the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach, or have the potential to erode though the walls of the stomach or intestines such as button batteries and sharp objects. 

About 80 percent of foreign bodies that reach the stomach get passed uneventfully.  About 10 to 20 percent may require direct retrieval by a physician, usually in the operating room.  Fewer than 2 percent cause intestinal blockage, or a stomach or intestinal hole formation requiring an emergency procedure.

Swallowed magnets, however, have become a growing threat to children.  When two or more magnets are ingested, they can adhere to each other, trapping tissues between them.  These tissues – intestines, in particular – can get twisted, pinched, blocked, develop holes, and get infected, which can then lead to an overwhelming infection affecting the entire body. A 20 month old boy died of this complication in 2005.

The same sequence of events can occur when a magnet and another metal object are swallowed by someone.  There is a report of a child who was not known to have swallowed a magnet, underwent an MRI for an unrelated condition, and ended up developing a hole in his intestine. 

Recognizing that magnets are injuring children, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a warning in 2006 recalling more than 8 million products containing magnets that could come loose or fall out.  The following year, a stronger warning to parents was released.  Despite these efforts, the problem is only getting worse.  At least 480 cases of high- powered magnet ingestions have been reported in the past decade, and 204 (42 percent) of those cases occurred in the past 12 months, according to the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition.  A similar trend is being reported in Canada and the United Kingdom. In Australia and New Zealand, high powered magnets are banned from children's toys, construction kits, and jewelry. and Toys "R" Us are the latest retailers who very recently recalled 539 Buckyballs, which are high-powered magnet sets, sold between 2010 to 2012. Six other retailers also recalled the sets.  Buckyballs and Buckycubes were manufactured in China and imported by Maxfield & Oberton LLC, which has refused to participate in the recall.

 To help prevent serious magnet injuries:

  • Keep magnets and toy sets with magnets that can come loose, away from children, or get rid of them altogether.
  • Look out for dislodged magnet pieces and regularly inspect play areas for loose magnets.
  • Warn tweens and teens about the dangers of swallowing magnets.
  • Look for non-specific symptoms, such as belly pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • Seek prompt medical attention if you suspect your child may have swallowed a magnet.

 Here are some of the magnetic toys that have been recalled:

  • Magnetix building sets by Mega Brands
  • Magnetix building sets by Rose Art Industries, Inc.
  • Polly Pocket magnetic play sets by Mattel, Inc.
  • Buckyballs and Buckycubes by Maxfield and Oberton, LLC

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