Shiny magnetic balls that can be fashioned into endless shapes and patterns can provide hours of fun. But they also can be deadly if accidentally swallowed.

Doctors are warning about an increase in serious injuries to children and teens from BB-sized magnetic balls known as rare earth super magnets, executive desk toys, Buckyballs, Nanospheres, Zen Magnets and Magnet Balls.

Sets of 216 or more pieces in various colors are sold online and in gift, office and other stores.

Children who find loose magnetic balls are apt to swallow or choke on them. If more than one piece is swallowed, the powerful ball bearings can attach to each other across intestinal walls, causing obstructions, perforations (holes) and even death.

A magnet that has to be removed surgically “often requires the repair of the child’s damaged stomach and intestines,” according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which has warned of the hazards.

Reported incidents of children swallowing the BB-sized magnets began around 2002. Since 2008, the CPSC had received more than 200 such reports, with some children requiring emergency surgery to remove the magnets. A 20-month-old died of his injuries.

Teens and younger children also have swallowed the silvery magnets while trying to make it look as though they had tongue or lip piercings, or while attempting to separate the pieces with their teeth or place them on their braces.

Although the magnetic balls and, more recently, magnetic cubes, now must be labeled for adult use only (“14 years+”), not all parents or caregivers see the warnings or realize the hazards.

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers these safety tips:

  • Keep all small magnets and tiny cubes away from anyone younger than 14.

  • Regularly check toys and play areas, including carpeting, for dislodged or lost magnets.

  • Warn teens to avoid placing the tiny magnetic balls near their faces, such as to mimic piercings.

  • Seek immediate medical attention if you think a child has swallowed a magnet (and don’t assume it will pass normally). Symptoms include abdominal pains, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, all of which can be mistaken for other illnesses.

© 2012 American Academy of Pediatrics. This Parent Plus may be freely copied and distributed with proper attribution.