Magnets are found all over the place. They hold items on the refrigerator while also holding the door shut. Our banking cards have magnetic strips — as do speakers, motors, and automatic doors. Earlier use of magnets includes compasses. The Earth itself is a gigantic magnet, and a compass needle always will point to the north pole.
Unfortunately, small magnets are found in common household items, including toys. Tiny magnets, like the ones found in building sets and other toys, can cause death in kids if more than one is swallowed. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has verified the death of a 20-month-old and at least 19 other small children being injured and requiring surgery. There are things you should be aware of as parents regarding magnets and children to keep them safe.
What Exactly Is a Magnet?
A magnet is a piece of metal or a rock that can draw other metals to it. Magnetism, the force that magnets possess, is a force of nature like gravity and electricity. A magnet does not have to touch the item it is pulling because it works over a distance.
All objects are made of small units called atoms. Atoms contain neutrons, protons, and electrons. The electrons spin around the central part of the atom called the nucleus. The spinning of the electrons causes tiny magnetic forces. Magnetism occurs when the tiny electrons behave in this way.
Sometimes a lot of the electrons in an object rotate in the same direction. All these small magnetic forces combine to make one big magnet of the object.
How Can a Magnet Become Dangerous?
Magnetic toys for kids can be fun and educational, but loose magnets or high-powered magnets can cause dangerous injuries or fatalities in children if they are swallowed. High-powered magnets, also known as rare earth magnets, are a lot more powerful than regular magnets. They are used in technological machinery like MRI machines and household items like washing machines and vacuum cleaners.
If a child happens to swallow a high-powered magnet, it can cause life-threatening injuries. When numerous magnets are swallowed, they can attract each other in the abdomen and cause blockages in the intestines. This could lead to major intestinal backup or even holes in the intestines.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), there is an increase in the number of accidents being reported regarding high-powered magnets being swallowed by children. The magnets are found in stress-reliever toys and desk props made for adults. Magnets of this type are usually found in sets and sold with several hundred in a pack.
Many times, young kids will mistake these tiny magnets for candy. Teens may use them as fake body piercings. Both could lead to accidental swallowing. Eating rare earth magnets has increased dramatically since the federal ban on selling them was lifted in 2016.
The National Poison Control Center reported about 1600 cases of magnets being swallowed in 2019. This was more than six times the number in 2016. Of the children who swallowed multiple magnets, over 70% needed to be admitted to the hospital.
If two or more magnetic components or charged metal objects are swallowed individually, they could attract each other through the walls of the intestines. This will trap the magnets in a spot and cause twisting, holes, infection, blood poisoning, and possibly death.
What to Do If a Child Has Swallowed a Small Magnet
If you think that a child has swallowed magnets, please get medical attention as soon as possible. Go to the closest emergency room to get examined and an X-ray fast. Do not give the child anything to drink or eat until after the x-ray.
In some cases, repairing damages caused by magnets could require several surgeries.
You should look for these symptoms if you think a child has swallowed magnets:
- Severe abdominal pain
- Choking episode around magnets
- Nausea or vomiting
If your child has indeed swallowed magnets or been injured by a product, you should report the injury to the CPSC at SaferProducts.gov. It is not required, but you may be asked to share the child’s personal information.
The CPSC is by law required to make the accident and any investigative reports public, but the reports will not include identifying info about your child or your family. Your contact information is also not shared.
Swallowed Magnet Treatment
When an extensive number of magnets are swallowed, surgery is needed to take the magnets out, and sometimes part of the intestines has to be taken out as well.
How Can I Practice Magnet Safety?
Several different things can generally be done to practice magnet safety:
- Keep all magnets out of the reach of young kids who could swallow them.
- Educate young kids and teens about magnets and how dangerous they are if swallowed.
- Keep high-powered magnet sets away from kids.
- Immediately get help if you think someone has swallowed a magnet.
- If you notice dangerous magnets around the homes of people you know, say something.
The American Academy of Pediatrics especially urges families with younger kids not to keep high-powered magnet sets in their homes. They have additional recommendations for families with young kids in the home.
- Observe young children cautiously when magnets are being used.
- If your home contains rare earth magnets, get rid of them.
- After magnets are used, put them away quickly and make sure there are not any left on the floor or in a place where they could be found by a young kid.
- Keep other products with loose or small magnets away from younger kids and keep them locked up or hidden.
- Do not buy large sets of magnets because it is too hard to figure out when some go missing.
- Speak with older kids about using magnets as fake piercings in their noses or mouth. They are usually made with high-powered magnets. In addition to pinching the skin, they can be accidentally inhaled or swallowed.