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Swallowing tiny magnets: A big concern for children

Powerful, rare-earth (neodymium) magnets can cause serious injury and death if swallowed. They are up to ten times more powerful than traditional magnets and attract each other even if they are in different areas of the digestive system.

In the past, swallowed magnets generally could be treated with a wait-and-see approach, relying on them to pass without incident. With the proliferation of these small rare-earth magnets, that is not always the case.

X-rays are needed to confirm that a child has swallowed magnets and to identify their location. A critical step is to determine how many magnets were swallowed. A single magnet may pass through without causing any harm. However, if two or more magnets have been swallowed (or a magnet with another piece of metal), attraction between them may result in serious complications. Rapid evaluation is critical, as complications increase if the evaluation is delayed.

Preventing children from ingesting magnets

Used in many industrial products, these powerful magnets also are marketed as “desk toys” or “stress relievers” for adults. The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) recently took action to propose a ban on the sale of neodymium magnets as toys. This may help, but it doesn’t alleviate the problem. Awareness and prevention are the keys to curbing the ingestion of these magnets. Removal of magnets from environments with children is a smart way to stop ingestion.

In addition to young children ingesting magnets, older kids may have issues with the magnets too. They use them to mimic body piercings, such as a nose or tongue stud. These magnets can come loose and end up in the stomach or other parts of the body.

The CPSC has reported an estimated 1,700 ingestions of magnets that were treated in emergency departments between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2011. Wisconsin Poison Center has received calls on 26 cases of magnet ingestions in the past year. Sixteen of these cases required ED visits.

If you suspect ingestion of any magnets, call Wisconsin Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 for help.