MagnetsAn 8-year-old girl comes to the emergency room with what her parents think is stomach flu, then is rushed into surgery after X-rays show she swallowed three tiny magnets. A toddler eats magnets that look like candy, then has part of her bowels removed after the magnets click together inside her.

They’re stories that make parents squirm – and they’re becoming all too familiar to Julie Brown, MD, co-director of pediatric emergency medicine research at Seattle Children’s. Brown treats children in Seattle Children’s Emergency Department and is seeing more and more cases where kids accidentally swallow magnets or insert them into their nose, ears or other orifices, with potentially life-threatening consequences.

In a study published Aug. 6 in Annals of Emergency Medicine, she and her colleagues found that this is a national trend: From 2002 to 2011, there was a significant increase in kids receiving emergency care after accidentally taking magnets into their bodies, indicating that magnet-related injuries are an increasing public health problem for children.

The trend corresponds to the rising popularity of new, “rare earth” magnets – tiny, exceptionally strong magnets used in everything from train sets to jewelry clasps, to desk toys for adults.

“These magnets seem innocuous but they pose an incredible risk to kids, and we need to do a better job regulating them so they stay out of children’s hands,” said Brown, who authored the study along with Jonathan Silverman, MD, Beth Ebel, MD and other colleagues from Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the University of Washington.

Magnet ingestions far more common, especially in young children

The researchers reviewed records of emergency department visits at 100 hospitals nationwide, using data collected by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. Between 2002 and 2011, they found 893 cases where kids under 21 went to the emergency room with magnet-related injuries involving their mouth, nose, ears or other orifices. Nationally, this equates to approximately 22,581 magnet-related emergency room visits over the 10-year period.

Most of the cases the researchers reviewed – 74 percent – involved magnets in the intestinal tract. The incidence of these magnet ingestions increased from 0.57 cases per 100,000 children per year in 2002 and 2003 to 3.06 cases per 100,000 children per year in 2010 and 2011.

“Ingestions most frequently involved toddlers and young children, and usually happened in the child’s home,” Brown said.

Swallowing multiple magnets is especially dangerous

The study found that cases where children swallowed more than one magnet increased between 2008 and 2011 – exactly when adult desktop toys like Buckyballs started hitting the market. The products are marketed as stress-relievers and each set can contain more than 200 tiny magnetic balls.

“It’s easy for them to get lost in the carpet or fall into places where young children can find them and eat them,” Brown said.

All children who ingest more than one magnet are at risk for complications and need to be followed closely, preferably with the involvement of pediatric specialists. The danger is greatest when magnets are ingested at different times, as they can travel separately through the digestive system and end up in different loops of tissue.  When they attract between loops of  bowel, the magnets can quickly erode through the bowel walls, causing potentially life-threatening  injuries and infections. In some cases, surgeons have to remove sections of bowel and insert drains to treat infections.

Additional research at Seattle Children’s identified 56 children with magnet ingestions between 2002 and2012, with an increasing incidence that parallels the national data.  More than half of the 32 children with multiple magnet ingestions required a procedure. While 44 percent of children passed the magnets with close monitoring and medications, 25 percent required endoscopy to remove them and 31 percent required surgery.  There were increasing numbers of multiple magnet ingestions in the last three years of study (2010-2012), corresponding with an increase in ingestions of small, spherical magnets.

Teens at risk

Children inserted magnets through their nose in 21 percent of the cases the researchers reviewed. This was most common among preteens and teenagers, who sometimes use magnets to imitate nose piercings. Teens who ingested magnets reported accidentally swallowing them after sticking them to their braces or using them to imitate tongue, lip and cheek piercings.

Stronger regulations needed

For Brown, the new study, along with an upcoming paper showing a surge in magnet-related cases at Seattle Children’s, shows a need for more parent education and stronger regulations. Some of the most popular adult magnet sets, including Buckyballs, were recently taken off United States markets after warnings by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, but millions of sets were sold and are still available on the internet. Many other hazardous magnets are sold with bulletin boards or as fridge magnets. 

These magnets aren’t subject to child safety guidelines because they’re marketed as adult products.  “The manufacturers say it should be up to parents to protect their kids, but these magnets are so much stronger than what was out there 10 years ago, and many parents don’t realize how dangerous they are,” Brown said.

Tips for parents: Protecting kids from magnets

  • Take stock of the magnets in your home. Small, strong magnets are being used in common items like toy building sets, refrigerator and bulletin board magnets and jewelry clasps.
  • Teach your kids not to put magnets in or near their mouths.
  • Keep small magnets out of children’s reach and away from children with developmental disabilities, pica or autism.
  • Counsel your teens about the hazards of using magnets to imitate piercings.
  • Throw away or lock up your Buckyball-type magnets. These magnets are too dangerous to keep in a house with children.
  • If you think your child ingested a magnet, take them to your doctor or the emergency department immediately.
  • For more information, watch this video for parents.

If you’d like to arrange an interview with Dr. Brown, please contact Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or at press@seattlechildrens.org.