Reports of serious and potential life-threatening injuries suffered after children swallow magnets has increased by a factor of five between 2002 and 2011, according to the findings of new research that highlights growing concerns about powerful magnet toy sets.
In a study published this week in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, researchers indicate that there have been more than 22,500 magnetic foreign body cases that resulted in medical treatment over a 10-year period.
The report comes as federal safety officials have taken steps in recent years to recall magnet sets that are often sold as executive or adult desk toys, featuring small and powerful rare-earth magnets that have been linked to devastating injuries and deaths after children accidentally swallowed more than one of the magnets, which may attract across intestinal walls inside the body.
Researchers looked at 893 cases of children swallowing magnets. The mean age was 5.2 years. In 2002, there were only 0.57 cases per 100,000 children. But by 2011, that number had increased to 3.06 cases per 100,000. Most of those incidents occurred in 2007 or later.
The study found that patients who swallowed multiple magnets, like those found in toy magnet sets, were admitted to emergency rooms in 15.7% of cases, compared to 2.3% of cases of single magnet ingestion.
Magnet injuries were identified by the researchers as an increasing public health problem for young children. However, they also noticed that incidents have increased among older children and teens who may accidentally swallow the magnets while using them to simulate piercings of the tongue or cheek.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has been concerned about toy magnet sets for some time. The industry at first tried to police itself, adding warning labels to the sets. However, the injuries and ingestion incidents have continued
In November 2012, the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition issued a report (PDF) highlighting problems with the magnet sets, indicating that warning labels are not enough to prevent children from placing them in their mouths or from swallowing them.
If more than one magnet is swallowed, they often attract to each other while moving through the intestines. This may cause intestines to twist, create blockages or tear intestinal walls. Often this results in the need for emergency surgery and can result in death or severe life-long health problems for the child.
Initial symptoms associated with swallowing the small magnets may be similar to that of a common flu consisting of vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain, causing the problems not to be promptly recognized until certain medical examinations are done, further delaying treatment and allowing the magnets to attract.
An estimated 3 million of the magnet sets have been sold in the U.S. since 2010. Despite the regulatory efforts to place strong warning labels on the products and launch an educational campaign for consumers, reports of continuing injuries led the safety regulators to determine that the manufacture and sale of the powerful toy magnets should be banned.
Consumers have been urged to immediately stop using any magnet ball sets and to make certain that they are kept out of reach of children. In addition, safety officials indicate that consumers should teach children of all ages about the risks posed by magnets or items containing magnets, urging them to never place any in their mouth or nose and to seek immediate medical attention for any child who is suspected of swallowing one or more magnets.