Beware: Magnets May Be Hazardous To Health!

Beware: Magnets May Be Hazardous To Health!

By Uma Pisharody, MD, FAAP
Pediatric Gastroenterologist

Magnets, a common household object with which we are all familiar, can be surprisingly dangerous, especially to children.  If this statement is startling to you, here’s what you need to know. 

Beginning in the 1970s and 80s, scientists discovered a new type of magnet, the so-called “rare-earth magnet”.  Made from some of the “rare earth” metals of the periodic table such as “Neodymium”, these new magnets are not only the strongest, most powerful magnets known to man (magnetic forces up to ten times that of other magnets), they are also permanent and relatively inexpensive to manufacture.  These properties revolutionized the production of many household products, even toys.  Basically, magnets we find in everyday items today are no longer made using old-fashioned magnets from a generation ago!

As a pediatric gastroenterologist, I am writing this blog to warn you of the dangers, should these powerful magnets be accidentally swallowed.  If more than one magnet is swallowed, or if a magnet is ingested along with another metallic object, the formidable strength of these magnets can attract 2 pieces of bowel to stick together with such great strength, it results in serious injury, even death.

This video highlights how a 2 year old child I met last year, almost died from having swallowed a magnet toy:

Many times, it’s younger children that accidentally ingest these magnets, especially since they come in the shape of shiny balls resembling candy.  However, even older children and adolescents have also accidentally inhaled or swallowed these magnets, as they are also being used to mimic tongue, nose, and ear piercings.  

Cases of serious health hazards from magnet ingestion have been reported since more than a decade, with the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) taking action to regulate their use and distribution.  Despite this, physicians across the nation continue to see a rise in the number of magnet-related injuries, as highlighted in a recent study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

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