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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  • Gonna state this clearly and it may make deregulation folks upset, but here goes. We had ‘adult magnet toys’ without regulation before and it hurt toddlers who put everything in their mouths despite how closely parents watch. After horrific cases of toddlers losing their intestines, these magnets were taken off the market and toddler injuries declined. 2016 court case and Judge Gorsuch (Trump/McConnel pick) is the deciding vote that these products deserve to be back on the market. Gorsuch apparently thinks a written warning to a nonverbal toddler is enough. I get that Republicans want conservative judges, but don’t you want judges that are rational and can see the rationale for protecting toddlers from harm? Since the Gorsuch vote that put magnets back in the mouths of toddlers, magnet catastrophic injuries are back. So what are Republicans going to do? This is a pretty easy fix IMO: Ban magnet toys. But do it fast. Toddlers are being harmed now.

  • Heart pills are very dangerous to toddlers. So are most household cleaning supplies. Staples and paperclips are an electrocution risk in outlets, and many toddlers are better at working outlet covers out than their parents. Worn pennies are a real problem as the thin copper wears off and the zinc is exposed, causing galvanic reactions in their stomachs. Pencils are incredibly dangerous, capable of maiming or killing when sharpened. Children still die from asphyxiation from plastic bags. Toothpicks and pins cause no end of trouble when swallowed and lodged in the throat. So many things to keep out of the hands of small children. I know how it is, I’ve been there, done that. We’re not likely to ban all of the above things, and the many other fatal threats to small children. Please let us label these as not safe around small children, and educate parents that they are as much of a threat as all of the other things they already have to be constantly vigilant about. Education is so much more effective than trying to ban everything.

  • Gonna state this clearly and it may make deregulation folks upset, but here goes. We had ‘adult magnet toys’ without regulation and it hurt toddlers who put everything in their mouths despite how closely parents watch. After horrific cases of toddlers losing their intestines, these magnets were taken off the market and toddler injuries declined. 2016 court case and Judge Gorsuch (Trump/McConnel pick) is the deciding vote that these products deserve to be back on the market. Gorsuch apparently thinks a written warning to a nonverbal toddler is enough. I get that Republicans want conservative judges, but don’t you want judges that are rational and can see the rationale for protecting toddlers from harm? Since the Gorsuch vote that put magnets back in the hands of toddlers, magnet catastrophic injuries are back. So what are Republicans going to do? This is a pretty easy fix IMO: Ban magnet toys. But do it fast. Toddlers are being harmed now.

  • I wonder if it would help to make the magnets in colors that kids would find less attractive. I also wonder if the coating could be made to taste awful.

  • This article is ridiculous! This is so baseless and just.. my god.. if you’re going after tiny magnets you better go after every single other tiny object on the planet until they’re all banned for 18+ only. This is a case of parents letting kids play with smal things that’s not on the magnets. Don’t give your child small things, this includes magnets of fucking course. But don’t make some convoluted article saying MAGNETS KILL OUR CHILDREN DEAR LORD BAN THEM!! no it should be, children are allowed to play with small magnets, like all toys they should have an age requirement just like any other small toy. This is the first news article I’ve read in my life, it clickbaited me because it’s so ignorant and ridiculous. Have common sense and don’t read this paper because they just want to controls people with bs assumptions and shit. They have letters that are too big to swallow and everything smaller is labeled do not give to children. Follow the rules and your kid won’t choke on it.

    • Saying”18+ only” is hyperbolic. We’re mostly worried about small children. On another tack, it seems clear to me that Darian has never had children. They instinctively put things in their mouth, and they can pick them up from the floor, and later the table, before you can say “Don’t put that-…”

  • Its the parents fault they are eating it, they arent giving good supervision to the kids who eat the tiny parts. plus the ban of toy magnets would be bad because kids would not learn important stuff with them, and if they dont learn we might not have the stuff we will have in the future involving magnets. -Daniel 2019.

    • The CPSC banned these adult magnets (they remain banned for children up to age 14), but the ban was overturned by the federal courts, so they are likely to stay in the marketplace for the foreseeable future. No parent can watch their kids 24/7, so that’s not realistic. The best solution that is achievable is to educate caregivers about the extreme danger these pose, and for them to be labeled with strong wording conveying the danger. ASTM is currently working on a standard to do exactly that.

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