Kids Just Can't Stop Eating These Magnets

A 2013 photo of “Buckyballs,” a common magnetic toy product that could cause serious harm when ingested by children.
A 2013 photo of “Buckyballs,” a common magnetic toy product that could cause serious harm when ingested by children.
Photo: Carolyn Kaster (AP)

Recent research provides a clear example of the dangers of deregulation. The study found that poison center cells involving children swallowing high-powered magnets went up substantially after 2017 in the U.S., following the reversal of a ban on these products enacted years earlier.

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The high-powered magnets (10 to 30 times more powerful than the typical version) are sourced from rare earth metals and started to show up in children’s toys as well as adult-marketed products like desk toys around the early 2000s. Of course, any small object can be potentially dangerous for children, who tend to put things in their mouths and could swallow or choke on them. But when more than one of these magnets are swallowed (or a magnet and another piece of metal), the powerful pull between them can damage or cause obstructions in the gut. In the worst cases, victims have died or needed emergency surgery to remove parts of their intestines.

In 2012, the Consumer Product Safety Commission began to crack down on the sale of these magnets in toys through voluntary recalls. By 2014, a new federal rule essentially banned them from the market. In late 2016, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the rule, and the magnets were once again widely available by 2018.

This research, published in the Journal of Pediatrics in late January, studied how the policy changes might have affected the prevalence of these injuries. They analyzed national poison control data from 2008 to 2019, looking specifically at calls that involved children under the age of 19 who swallowed magnets.

In total, there were just over 5,700 magnet-related calls over that time period. Compared to the period of 2008 to 2011, the average number of these calls per year from 2012 to 2017 declined by 33%. But once the magnets returned, the calls skyrocketed. In 2018 and 2019, the average number of calls per year rose by 444% compared to the period when the magnets were banned. The number of calls that merited serious medical attention, such as hospitalization, also rose by 355%. What’s more, 39% of all magnet-related calls in the study occurred in those two years alone.

Poison control calls don’t account for every serious injury that happens in the U.S., so the study’s conclusions aren’t necessarily representative of how dangerous these magnets are. But other recent research has shown a similar pattern using reliable injury data. A study published in December 2020, for instance, found that the rate of magnet-related visits to the ER among children rose by 82% from 2017 to 2019, compared to the years 2013 to 2016. Another study in 2017 found that at least 15,000 children in the U.S. went to the ER between 2010 and 2015 with magnet-related injuries, but the cases began to drop following the CSPC’s actions in 2012.

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While at least one company has recently pledged to stop making products with high-powered magnets after a lengthy legal battle with the CSPC, the researchers warn that far-reaching changes will be needed to really address the problem. In the current study, for instance, the rate of these poison control calls increased for older children as well. Teens might not swallow these magnets intentionally as often as small kids do, but they can still ingest them accidentally when using them as fake tongue or lip piercings.

“These results reflect the increased need for preventative or legislative efforts,” the study authors wrote.

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Born and raised in NYC, Ed covers public health, disease, and weird animal science for Gizmodo. He has previously reported for the Atlantic, Vice, Pacific Standard, and Undark Magazine.

DISCUSSION

Okay, so I’m all for regulation, but I have never been okay with banning this particular product. Why is this not on the parents for letting their kids swallow these? It has a choking hazard warning on the packaging. This isn’t like a crib that can accidentally choke a baby due to flawed design. These aren’t meant for kids. At some point, parents need to take some responsibility instead of blaming companies when their products are used improperly.