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.

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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.

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  • At what point in time are we going to hold parents accountable for endangering their children? You have to be licensed to drive a car, teach in school, or perform certain other tasks, but (almost) anyone can have a child. Until parents are held accountable and do what they are supposed to do to keep their children safe from harm, things like this will continue to happen. Yes, small children are curious by nature and will put things in their mouths. But the parents should know this and keep those things out of reach, or out of their homes. Tell them to put their damn phones down and pay attention to their children. Accidents do happen…..yes, but small children should not be left unsupervised.
    It amazes me daily at my job how parents spend so little time with their children and instead rely on a cell phone or tablet to keep children occupied. It is sad that a toddler who can barely walk and is in diapers can pause and play a video.

  • Here’s a novel idea. How about parents watch their kids? How about instead of banning things the parents take responsibility for their lack of action?

  • This is ridiculous. We shouldnt be blaming legit companies selling these products literally plastered with warning labels when some parents dont have enough common sense to not let children swallow these tiny objects and or supervise the children while they are playing with them. These spheres arnt kids toys in the first place. These spheres arnt dangerous if you have half a brain. The companies who dont have warning labels are to blame somewhat. But at most, the parents are to blame.

  • Please stop referring to these items as toys-they are not. The toy industry recognized this hazard very early on, and powerful magnets small enough to be swallowed were banned in toys for up to 14 years of age in 2008, and they remain banned. What the CPSC banned in 2012 (the ban later overturned by a federal court) are these magnets in adult novelty and executive desk items. That is what is being sold today.

  • I think it is fear mongering when you overstate the case. The list of things adults buy and use that are highly dangerous if ingested by children is quite lengthy. The headline and article make no allowance for this.

    I agree, stop selling them to children. Stop giving them to children. Stop leaving them where children can get to them. But “banned-for good” throws aside that dialog in favor of a world that’s never going to exist where Chinese manufacturers stop selling them on Alibaba and eBay despite the demand, and where manufacturers you have no control over aren’t going to listen to your requirements.

    The messaging here needs to go to the parents, and if you think you can spend enough money and political capital, by all means make an effort to remove all the listings and stop all the imports of magnets that aren’t plastered flagrantly with “For adult use only” and “Not for children”, unlike the ones called out in the article.

    It sounds like Zen would like to help with a such a useful campaign, but it’s hard for them to do so when you start with an article that claims they are the bad actors and calls for shutting them down entirely.

  • It is not fear mongering. This is pure concern for small children from people who see them suffering. Most elementary school teachers and mothers can tell you that children will put stuff in any orifice they can manage. Zen appears to act very responsibly, from what I read here, and does the best they can to warn the intended adult users about safety concerns. Predatory businesses that just seek to take advantage of people and feel no responsibility have jumped into the marketplace. I would guess Zen probably wanted regulatory relief for their use as an art medium for older users, not a blanket drop of all restriction – they would have seen a risk to their business from unscrupulous competitors that did not have the same focus on safe use of the product. I recently saw small magnet sets on store shelves in my area and thought it would be cool to buy them for future grandchildren. My wife reminded me that the magnets would be dangerous around small children. Individuals are responsible for their actions, but government can be a tool with a “louder voice” than a single concerned individual when adults and businesses need to be educated about safety risks. Information, as Zen knows, can help people act responsibly. Rules or laws should make it clear and unambiguous to businesses what the best current knowledge is about the responsible and safe use of products. That is the aim of Zen working with standards groups that contain people with different perspectives and experiences to find the best ways to encourage people to safely use small magnets for art. Stories like this should push the standards committee to get the word out now and not in 3 years.

  • This is just fear mongering. The other two comments on this state everything that needs to be said. If you want to be angry, again as said by Newell, be angry at the bad parenting that allowed those kids to eat dangerous things to start with. Stop expecting the government to be responsible for the actions of individuals.

  • It seems you’ve been misled. Zen Magnets does not sell ANY TOYS. They have strict warnings all over their website and their packaging. They are for adults, never children. They allow the user to create 3D art.

    Think about art for a moment. Artists may use a lot of tools like acrylic paint or acetylene torches. You would expect those to be kept out of reach of children, and strong magnets should be respected the same way.

    Incidentally, those magnets “smaller than the tip of a ballpoint pen” were the only ones legal during the ban.

    And the next time you remove magnets from a child’s digestive system, you should be asking why the parent ignored all the warnings and allowed a child to have access to dangerous art supplies.

  • It’s like 2011 all over again. Other companies irresponsibly, but Zen Magnets getting the blame because their the name brand, even though the biggest reason Zen prevailed in the first place was precisely because they didn’t sell like all the other companies.

    Zen Magnets didn’t succeed in a vacuum. Zen won due to the public support and outrage towards regulators attempting to ban magnet spheres not just for children, but also adults and their older teens. Afterall, Zen wasn’t the one selling them as children’s toys.

    There absolutely is a problem with magnet ingestion right now. The pendulum has swung far to the opposite end after the end of the CPSC magnet ban. A look at NEISS injuries show more magnet ingestions in 2018 and 2017 than the worst of 2011 and 2012. For example: Amazon alone is selling 20,000 sets of these per month, often with no warnings, with falsely advertised strengths, at the lowest price and quality possible. And this is despite Amazon’s own “No High Powered Magnets” sales policy, which is being blatantly ignored. Amazon sells an order of magnitude more knockoffs with no warnings or labels at all, than Zen sells magnets that are covered with warnings on it’s own site where hazard education is practically shoved in your face.

    “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?”

    Then work to address the actual problems. Ask patients where they are getting the magnets instead of naming the firms that are part of the solution. Work with the ASTM group that Zen, CPSC and others are in to develop new standard for sales, labeling, packaging and sales. Zen was the first to petition the CPSC for new regulations as soon as the ban dismounted, but without much result.

    Pediatricians and gastroenterologists should absolutely be concerned. But for the same reason skateboards, trampolines (or even tobacco) aren’t simply banned, the sustainable solution must be found by medical advocates together with regulators, and the market.

    • I represent Zen Magnets; I am Zen’s lawyer. I have been involved in the cases brought by the CPSC against Zen since 2012, including an ongoing appeal right now. If the CPSC would have addressed concerns we brought to the agency early on and not taken such a hard line position, we all could have worked toward a viable solution that protects children and allowed Zen and other businesses to contribute to a vibrant market. The legal decisions made in the cases that have allowed SREMs to now flood the market, were consistent with long-standing regulatory and constitutional legal principles. The fact that there is not now a regulatory structure in place to guard against un-warned magnet sets flooding the US market is an ironic consequence of regulatory over-reach. For Zen’s part, and on behalf of Zen, we made many attempts to work with the CPSC to develop a safety rule and take other steps to protect the very children who are now at risk — but, as Mr. Qu wrote, it was not to be. I have never before opined in a publication regarding a client’s case. But, a complete ban is not the answer and the fact that the CPSC’s methods on this issue have been overturned based on successful legal challenges should be a lesson that compromise and combined efforts to solve problems can result in a safer market place. CPSC’s refusal to compromise in this case, has led to an unsafe magnet market. As Mr. Qu often says, SREMs are to be respected, not feared. And, so, too the law.
      David C. Japha

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