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Magnet swallowing a potentially deadly threat to children, study says

March 11, 2013|By Monte Morin
  • Physicians say the swallowing of small, powerful magnets by young children is a growing problem.
Physicians say the swallowing of small, powerful magnets by young children… (Monte Morin / Los Angeles…)

A new breed of powerful magnets found in toys and jewelry poses a growing and potentially deadly risk to small children who swallow them, according to a study published Monday in the Canadian Medical Assn. Journal.

Neodymium-iron-boron magnets are created from rare-earth elements and are 10 to 20 times stronger than traditional ferrite magnets. Developed in the 1980s, the magnets are often found in novelty desk toys, children's construction sets and jewelry clasps.

Years ago, when a child swallowed a weaker magnet, parents and physicians could usually rely on the object passing through the patient's digestive system.

Now however, if a child swallows several magents, they can attract each other through intestinal walls, become stuck, and kill surrounding tissue.

"Swallowing a single magnet is generally innocuous, much like swallowing any other inert foreign body," wrote lead author, Dr. Daniel Rosenfield, a pediatric resident at the University of Toronto and Hospital for Sick Children.

"However, multiple magnets, especially when swallowed at different times, can attract each other through loops of the gastroentistinal tract. The force created through the bowel or stomach wall may result in pressure necrosis and eventual perforation."

In the Canadian Medical Assn. Journal paper, Rosenfield and colleagues examined the case of a 3-year-old boy who swallowed three spherical rare-earth magnets, which eventually became attracted to each other in the final section of the boy's small intestine.

When laxatives failed to dislodge the objects, and the boy developed a fever, abdominal pains and increased heart rate, doctors performed surgery. They found that the cluster of magnets had eroded through the boy's intestinal walls. The perforations were repaired and the boy made a full recovery, according to the study.

Although regulatory agencies in Canada and the U.S. have attempted to alert parents to the threat of small magnets through product recalls and labeling requirements, incidence of magnet ingestion is growing, authors said.

"In a 2012 survey, members of the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition reported 480 cases of high-powered magnet ingestions in the previous 10 years, 204 of which were in the previous 12 months," authors wrote.

Pediatricians needed to be aware of the possibility of magnet ingestion when treating children who suffer from vomiting, abdominal pain and fever -- common symptoms in children.

"Modern magnet technology has transformed what was once an esoteric type of foreign-body ingestion into a common and lethal threat," authors wrote. "Despite efforts in many countries, high powered magnets are here to stay."

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