Dangers of Magnets in Toys

By Dr. Claire McCarthy, Boston Children's Hospital

A few years ago, one of my children got a set of magnetic building toys as a birthday present from a friend. It had rods and little balls that you could build into geometric shapes. They didn’t work very well, mostly because the magnets were so strong that the pieces tended to collapse together into clumps (they would almost fly together if near each other). There was something about them that gave me the heebie-jeebies, so I stored them high out of reach—and after a while, I threw them away.

Which, as it turns out, was a good move. I had small children; if one of them had swallowed two or more of the little balls, it could have been extremely dangerous. High-powered magnets (neodymium magnets) are so powerful that they can be pulled together after they are swallowed, sometimes through the stomach or intestine, boring holes as they do. In one well-publicized case in New Orleans, a child lost a large portion of his intestine because of these magnets.

Small toys (like the Polly Pocket clothes we had and threw out too) aren’t allowed to have magnets anymore for just this reason. But toys for, um, grownups don’t have the same restrictions—enter Buckyballs, which are marketed to adults as a “desk toys.”

Buckyballs are highly magnetic balls that can be molded into all sorts of shapes. They come in different colors and sizes. There have been at least a dozen reported incidents of kids swallowing the balls, but doctors from the North American Society of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (NASPGHAN) have seen many more ingestions and have had to put children under anesthesia to retrieve them.  It’s not just small children that put these things in their mouths; teenagers put one ball on each side of the tongue, mimicking a piercing.

The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has warned people about these high-powered magnets for years, but the ingestions keep happening. Therefore, the CPSC asked manufacturers to recall their products. Most companies agreed to do this, but the maker of Buckyballs said no. So the CPSC is taking the unusual step of filing an administrative complaint (like a lawsuit) against the maker of Buckyballs, a step that NASPGHAN and the American Academy of Pediatrics applaud.

If you go to Buckyball’s website, you’ll see that they’ve got a “Save Our Balls” campaign going on. They want people to contact the CPSC. They say that it’s unfair, that they market to adults and have warning labels.

They have a point. There are all sorts of things that aren’t meant for children and can hurt them. Like thumbtacks, bleach, knives, razors or weights. Or guns. Or, as one boston.com reader said in a comment on a blog on the subject, cars. We don’t recall these things. We teach about safety, are careful and hope for the best. Shouldn’t it be the parents’ responsibility to keep Buckyballs away from their kids?

Yes…but the other things have a purpose. Buckyballs don’t really have a purpose. They are toys. Yes, they are marketed to adults—but kids and teens have a way of being where adults are. And once they are out of the box, there’s no warning label (not that a toddler or teenager would read the label anyway).  Is it really that important to have this particular toy available when it can—and has—hurt children so badly?

“I’m glad the CPSC acted the way they did,” says Athos Bousvaros, MD, MPH, associate director of the Center for Inflammatory Bowel Disease Treatment and Research at Boston Children’s Hospital, the president-elect of NASPGHAN. “The warnings haven’t worked. These high-powered small magnets, which are much stronger than refrigerator magnets, are a major health hazard to young children. If your child eats any, please take them straight to an emergency department.”

Ultimately it will be up to policymakers and the courts to decide if Buckyballs are taken off the market. In the meantime, if you have them or anything like them in your house, do what I did: throw them out.

Used with permission from Boston Children's Hospital.

Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children’s Hospital.