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About SickKids

June 2, 2014

SickKids researchers show tiny magnets can cause big problems when swallowed

By Rebecca Milec & Kat Kostic

They are the tiny magnet spheres that make up novelty desk toys. They seem harmless, but when a couple are swallowed they can cause major health concerns. Researchers at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) have found that the incidence and severity of magnet ingestions have increased in the last few years, likely due to the availability of smaller, stronger magnets that are sold in sets. The study  was published in a recent online edition of the Journal of Pediatrics.

The investigators analyzed more than 2,700 emergency department visits at SickKids for foreign-body ingestions that occurred from April 2002 through December 2012. During this period, 94 of the visits were magnet-related. Comparing the first eight years of the study period (2002-2009) to the last three years (2010-2012), the team showed that multiple-magnet ingestions had increased nearly tenfold. Six children required life-saving operations, all of which occurred in the last three years of the study period.

The increase in multiple-magnet ingestion and associated medical issues is believed to be due to a shift from ferrite magnets to those made of neodymium-iron-boron, and the use of these stronger magnets in desk toys since 2009. Neodymium magnets are approximately 10 to 20 times more powerful than ferrite magnets, are usually sold in packs of 125 or 216 and are smaller, making them easier to swallow.

“When multiple magnets are swallowed, they attract each other through the loops of the bowel. This strong attraction can cause intense pressure which slowly erodes through the bowel wall, creating a hole,” says Dr. Matt Strickland, lead author of the study and Resident in General Surgery at SickKids. “Many people don’t realize these small toys can be very harmful.”

The authors first reported a suspected increase in harm related to magnets in early 2013. Shortly thereafter, Health Canada issued a recall of these magnet desk toys with new safety advisories.

While the recall is a significant step toward injury prevention, Strickland notes that many magnet sets as well as other sources on fridges, in science kits or as play jewelry remain in homes and schools.  “More awareness among parents, teachers and primary-care physicians will be important to prevent further harm.”