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Reports of Children Swallowing High-Powered Magnets Spiked After CPSC Ban Lifted

A growing number of children continue to suffer severe and potentially life-threatening injuries from high-powered magnets, after a federal ban on sale of the “desk toys” was lifted a few years ago, raising questions about the decision and whether warning label information is sufficient to protect children from placing the small pieces in their mouths.

In the early 2000s, a number of consumer products were introduced that featured small, high-powered magnets, which are made from rare earth metals and are extremely powerful. They became popular as office desk toys, and were marketed under brand names like “Bucky Balls” and “Zen Magnets”, which could be formed into various shapes and designs.

As the magnet toys made their way into homes nationwide, thousands of reports began to surface involving injuries which resulted after the small pieces were swallowed, often involving young children.

When two or more magnets are swallowed, they tend to attract to each other, even through tissue and across the intestinal tract. This can cut off blood supply, cause obstructions, tissue necrosis, sepsis, and death.

In 2012, the Consumer Product Safety Commission halted sales of the products and a federal ban on sales was enacted. Later, a December 2016 U.S. Court of Appeals decision overturned the ban, allowing the products back on the market.

In findings published this month in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers from Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio report that injuries involving high-powered magnets increased more than 400% after the ban was lifted, with nearly 40% of all magnet injuries sustained by children nationwide occurring in 2018 and 2019.

Researchers analyzed data from the National Poison Data System from 2008 to 2019, which included patients younger than 19 years old with a magnet exposure. Poison centers define an exposure as an ingestion, inhalation, injection, or dermal exposure to a poison.

Poison centers reported a 33% decrease in magnet exposure cases from the 2008-2011 period to the 2012-2017 period. Cases dropped from 418 cases per year to 281 per year after the toys were banned in 2012. However, after the CPSC magnet ban was lifted, calls involving magnet exposure increased 444% leading to an average of 1,249 cases per year.

Cases increased across all age groups, yet the number of cases from 2018 to 2019 account for nearly 40% of all cases since 2008 and there has been a 355% increase in cases that were serious enough to require hospital treatment.

“Regulations on these products were effective, and the dramatic increase in the number of high-powered magnet related injuries since the ban was lifted – even compared to pre-ban numbers – is  alarming,” said Leah Middelberg, MD, lead author of the study and emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children’s.

Another study published last year also highlighted the increase in injuries caused by high-powered magnets. Data indicated emergency room visits for magnet ingestion increased drastically after the ban was lifted. In many cases, the magnets were placed in a child’s mouth or attracted to one another through the cheeks. The ingestions lead to severe injuries including emergency surgery and in severe cases death.

The researchers said the findings highlight the need for the CPSC federal ban to be reinstated or further regulations to limit the size and strength of magnets sold as a set to reduce the number and severity of injuries to children.

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