Magnets and children are a bad combination. If magnets are swallowed or otherwise get inside the body, they can trap tissue between them, and the resulting injury can be serious and even fatal. After the rates of magnet-related injury continued to raise every year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) finalized a rule in 2014 that essentially eliminated the sale of high-powered magnets in the US. These are powerful magnets that are generally small (5 mm in diameter or less) and come in discs, bars, or other shapes. They often are used in audio and computer equipment and engines, but are also sold separately to be used in art projects, hanging pictures, and similar applications.
However, one of the manufacturers brought a lawsuit against the CPSC and won. These high-powered magnets were back on the market, with the caveat that they can only be marketed to “adults” (which are classified as anyone who is 14 years and older).
What has happened since then? This week, Pediatrics is early releasing an article entitled, “High-Powered Magnet Exposures in Children: A Multi-Center Cohort Study,” by Dr. Leah Middelburg at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and colleagues from the IMPACT (Injuries, Morbidity, and Parental Attitudes Concerning Tiny high-powered magnets) research collaborative (10.1542/peds.2021-054543), which explores that very question.
This research collaborative reviewed charts of children (ages 0-21 years) who had a confirmed high-powered magnet ingestion or insertion at 25 US children’s hospitals between 2017 and 2019.
There were 596 patients identified; 95% were younger than 14 years old. Over half (56%) required hospitalization, 46.3% required an endoscopy, and 10% had a life-threatening complication, including but not limited to perforation, fistula formation, obstruction, bleeding, and infection. Age younger than 2 years of age or magnets <5 mm in diameter were more likely to be associated with complications, as were children exposed to 2 or more magnets since you need more than one to trap tissue.
There is much more detail in this report that you should read. However, it is clear that, even though these products are supposed to be marketed to those who are older than 14 years of age, the vast majority of the ill effects of high-powered magnets occur to those who are younger than 14 years of age.