Fatal attraction: ingested magnets can cause GI perforation or worse

October 30, 2013, 9:20 pm




Rare-Earth Magnet Ingestion-Related Injuries Among Children, 2000-2012. Roo ACD et al. Clin Pediatr 2013 Nov;52:1006-1013.


 In November 2011, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a warning about the dangers presented by high-powered rare-earth magnets that were being sold as desk toys or stress relievers.

These products — marketed under the trade name “Buckyballs”, among others — consisted of 0.5 cm spheres that could be molded into different shapes. These balls could be ingested by toddlers, or even older children who would sometimes use them to simulate tongue or lip piercings. (The magnets were strong enough to attract each other through tissue layers.) 

If 2 or more of these spheres were swallowed, there was risk of gastrointestinal perforation, necrosis or obstruction. A number of these cases have been reported, including one fatality in 2005.

This paper retrospectively reviewed cases of magnet-associated injury from 2000 through August 2012 in patients 15 years of age and younger, culled from 2 CPSC databases. They identified 72 cases. Patients ranged from age 9 months to 15 years, and swallowed from 1 to 40 magnets each.

Clinical outcomes were documented in 67 cases. These included multiple perforations and necrosis (23 patients), isolated perforation (4), ulcer (3), GI obstruction (2), and volvulus (1).

Medical management was reported in 66 cases. Of these, 70% underwent surgical intervention. (This figure at first seems surprisingly high, but remember — the data are affected by severe reporting bias.) Length of hospital stays ranged from 1 day to 8 weeks. Delayed treatment was associated with worse clinical outcomes.

Although Buckyballs and some other similar products have been withdrawn from the market, these small, strong magnets are still around and pose a risk for young (and some not so young) children. Since a delay in diagnosis and treatment can have severe consequences, a high index of suspicion is required.

To read a 2012 Washington Post article on this problem, click here.


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