Magnets Swallowed by Tots Can Cause Serious Harm

Serious pediatric injuries caused by magnet ingestion seen in emergency rooms

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Some young children love to put things in their mouths, and most small items don’t pose too much of a problem. But other items are much more dangerous than they seem and pose a serious risk if swallowed.

Magnets, particularly the strong ones, often used as part of a set for desktop show or play, posed real danger to young children before they were banned for sale in 2012.

A study that was conducted while they were still popularly sold has shown just how harmful they can be. Some of the children needed invasive procedures to remove the magnet, while others required surgery, or several surgeries, as a result of swallowing a magnet.

"Keep magnets out of reach of young children."

This study was led by Matt Strickland, MD, of The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada.

Dr. Strickland and colleagues looked at emergency department visits in their own institution from April 2002 until the end of 2012. In that time, there were 94 visits by children who had consumed magnets or were thought to have consumed magnets.

Of those, 75 children had actually ingested magnets (72 were swallowed and three were anal insertions). The oldest child was 13 years old, while the youngest was just 1 year old. The average age of children seen in the emergency department for swallowing a magnet was 4.5 years.

The physicians started to be very concerned because in the early 2000s, the stronger neodymium-iron-boron magnets came on the market, replacing the weaker ferrite magnets. The desk toys came with multiple magnets per set. Of the 75 cases seen, 30 involved multiple magnets.

The researchers broke their study into two parts to reflect the smaller, spherical magnet sets that were introduced in 2009. The first part of the study looked at injuries from magnet ingestion from 2002 until 2009, and the second part was from 2010 to 2012. The injuries seen were primarily noted in the second half of the study period.

Over the course of the study, the size (volume) of the magnets also changed. The desktop sets contained many magnets, but each individual magnet was smaller in size than previous magnets had been. The magnets seen at the start of the study were 878.6 cubic millimeters, but were found to be only 259.8 cubic millimeters in later years.

Swallowing magnets can lead to a number of problems, including that the magnet will obstruct the bowel or cause a hole in the bowel.

Six cases (all in the last two years of the study) involved surgeons operating to remove the magnet because it was causing abdominal infection after it had pierced the gastrointestinal tract. There were 10 endoscopic removals (use of a flexible tube through a natural opening of the body) of magnets, all in 2010 and later.

Shortly after the study, Health Canada — the national department responsible for public health in Canada — recalled the neodymium-iron-boron magnet sets marketed as desk toys.

The United States Consumer Production Commission banned their sale in 2012, although many sets still exist and are available for sale online.

Dr. Strickland and team concluded that while the danger may be lower today, it still exists.

“This data spans a greater than 10-year period before the Canadian government placed heavy restrictions on the sale of small, powerful magnet sets. Given the existing number of magnet sets as well as other, uncontrolled sources of magnets already in homes and schools, education of parents, teachers, and primary care physicians will be important to prevent further harm," the researchers wrote.

This study appears in The Journal of Pediatrics May 16.

The authors did not disclose any conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
May 15, 2014
Last Updated:
May 19, 2014