Over the course of little more than a month, we removed 54 tiny toy magnets from the digestive systems of four children. They were lucky: Despite invasive procedures and operations to repair holes in their intestines, their injuries were treated in time and they will make full recoveries.
In the past, others across the nation have not been so fortunate. These tiny magnets have been linked to many serious injuries and at least one death. If urgent measures aren’t taken to prevent access to these dangerous toys, we fear that history may soon repeat itself.
Rare-earth toy magnets, marketed under names like Zen Magnets and DigiDots, are composed of tiny, high-powered magnetic balls or cubes, some smaller than the tip of a ballpoint pen. The shiny and colorful pieces, sold in sets of up to 200, can be 30 times stronger than a standard kitchen magnet, making them the most powerful commercially available permanent magnets. The sets can be contorted into fun and interesting shapes, making these sets appealing to individuals of all ages.
When two of the magnets are swallowed, however, their powerful attraction can damage the digestive system. It’s even worse with multiple magnets. A tiny magnet in one loop of the bowel will “find” another magnet in a different loop and pull the two together. This traps parts of the digestive system between magnets, cutting off blood flow to the trapped section, and rapidly killing intestinal tissue. This, in turn, can create abnormal holes between intestinal segments, allowing the contents of the intestines to spill freely into the belly. That can lead to serious infections, lifelong digestive disorders, or even death.
In 2014, following the injury and hospitalization of hundreds of children nationally, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission deemed toy magnets and games made from rare-earth elements a safety risk and recalled them from the market.
In the years immediately following this action, magnet ingestions decreased nearly 80%.
A 2016 decision by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate the order, however, put these dangerous toys back on store shelves and into homes across the country.
Are these products any safer than they were six years ago? Does the required safety warning on the packaging of rare-earth toy magnets do enough to mitigate risk?
Based on our recent experiences at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, a teaching hospital associated with Oregon Health and Science University, the answers are unequivocally no and no.
A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that over the past two decades, the rate of foreign-body ingestions by children younger than age 6 nearly doubled, and the number is likely to increase approximately 4% annually.
Children are curious by nature. Their innate interest in exploring the world through their senses, including taste and touch, is not going to change.
To prevent the known harms associated with high-powered, multi-piece toy magnet sets, the Consumer Product Safety Commission needs to reissue its recall order to halt further harm and also establish a strong, mandatory safety standard for small, rare-earth magnet sets without delay. Removing these toys from store shelves is a good first step, but it is not enough. The addition of a safety standard would prevent future occurrences by preventing these dangerous products from coming back.
Although these magnets seem like toys, they are inherently dangerous and impossible to childproof. The clock is ticking. No more children should have to suffer before we once again get these hazards out of reach. And this time we need to be sure they are gone for good.
Amy Garcia, M.D., is a pediatric gastroenterologist, associate professor of pediatrics at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, and assistant dean of student affairs in the OHSU School of Medicine. Sanjay Krishnaswami, M.D., is vice chair of surgical quality and operations at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, program director of the pediatric surgery fellowship, and professor of surgery and pediatrics in the OHSU School of Medicine.