A study released today says that hundreds of children and teens have been treated by physicians, with dozens needing surgery for injuries, in just the past two years after swallowing tiny super-strong magnetic balls despite labels and warnings to keep them away from children.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission this past summer moved to recall the existing magnet toys, which typically are sold in sets of 100 or more BB-sized balls as adult desk playthings under brand names such as Buckyballs, Zen Magnets, and NeoCube, which was the first of these toys to hit the market in 2008. Although many manufacturers and importers say they will comply with the CPSC's action, two are contesting the move.
The newest study is based on reports compiled from a North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition survey of 354 pediatric gastroenterologists who had treated a total of 480 cases in which children or teens swallowed the tiny magnets, with 204 incidents occurring in just the past 12 months. Download a PDF of the press release about the study.
The magnets, made of the rare-earth mineral neodymium, are at least 15 times more powerful than standard magnets and stick together with such force that if more than one is swallowed, they can bore holes in the stomach or intestines and cause severe, life-threatening complications within hours.
Based on cases from 2008 through 2012 for which in-depth details were reported for the study, 80 percent required either endoscopy or surgery, including several that required removing portions of the bowel, which can cause long-term complications. Slightly more than half of the cases involved children age six or younger; 16 percent occurred among teenagers, who use the magnets to mimic tongue, lip, and nose piercings. "When children swallow other foreign bodies such as coins, pins or jewelry, typically less than 1 percent of them require surgical intervention, so the incidence of significant complications is much higher with these magnets," says Marsha Kay, M.D., chairwoman of the department of pediatric gastroenterology at the Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital.
As we reported previously, Kay was among a group of 17 physicians who met with the CPSC in June to voice concern about the increasing number of injuries they were seeing from magnet ingestions, despite rule changes requiring magnet sets to be marketed as adult desk toys, with labels stating that they are intended only for those age 14 or older. "Despite improved warnings, the prevalence of high-powered magnet ingestions is increasing, which tells us that warnings are ineffective at preventing ingestions," says Robert Noel, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist in New Orleans and lead author of the new study, which was approved by the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Institutional Review Board. See the graph below for more details.
The CPSC in September proposed rules that would ban the sale of these magnet sets, and noted that though the sets have only been available since 2008, the agency determined an estimated 1,700 ingestions of magnets from magnet sets were treated in emergency departments between Jan. 1, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2011.
Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition strongly support the proposed action by the CPSC. "Young children naturally put things in their mouths as part of their development, and pediatricians counsel parents to be aware of this risk and keep dangerous items out of their child's reach. But no parent can be vigilant 100 percent of the time," says American Academy of Pediatrics President Thomas McInerny. "The Consumer Product Safety Commission's ban is the decisive action needed to protect young children from potentially severe injuries."
Although 11 of 13 manufacturers and importers that market these high-powered magnet sets have agreed to stop selling the products, Buckyballs manufacturer Maxfield & Oberton has refused to do, as has the company that markets Zen Magnets. Maxfield & Oberton also launched a public relations campaign that it has labeled "Save Our Balls" for what it describes as its "ongoing battle with the CPSC."
Update: Shortly after publication, we received a copy of the following response to the NASPGHAN study issued by Buckyballs' manufacturer Maxfield & Oberton:
"At Buckyballs, we share NASPGHAN's concern about keeping high-powered magnets away from children. This is and has been our safety priority. That is why, in addition to multiple warning labels on our packaging, we do not advertise or sell our products to or for use by children; have a strict policy of not selling to stores that sell products exclusively to or for use by children; have developed an informational safety website at www.magnetsafety.com; and have strongly advocated for a broad-based CPSC-sponsored public education campaign, as CPSC has done with other products, such as window blinds, button cell batteries and corded baby monitors, that pose risks to children."
Given the severity of the risks presented by these powerful magnets and continued injuries despite changes in warnings and a recall, Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believes that these super-strong magnet products should be prohibited from being sold and encourages consumers to file comments in support of the CPSC's proposed ban. (Comments to CPSC can be filed until Nov. 19.)
It's crucial for both parents and physicians to understand the need for prompt medical attention to reduce the risk of severe injuries from these tiny balls that they might assume will pass out of the body naturally, says Ronald D. Collier, M.D., a California surgeon who in 2011 operated on a toddler who had swallowed several high-powered magnets from a set a babysitter had brought along to entertain an older sibling. The toddler was hospitalized for about two weeks and required surgery to remove the magnets and sections of his bowel that had been damaged by them. "On the outside they are toys, but inside the abdomen, these magnets act like low-powered shrapnel or buckshot," says Collier, who is completing his training in surgical critical care and acute care surgery at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.