The tiny magnets are made from neodymium, a rare earth metal. They come in sets and are usually sold as a desk toy. Each magnet is about 30 times stronger than a regular refrigerator magnet—each one.
They're considered among the most dangerous hazards for kids to swallow. That's because they're small enough to be easily ingested and incredibly powerful. Once swallowed, the magnets find each other inside the child's body across tissue, cutting off blood supply to the bowel. The magnets can cause obstructions, tissue death, sepsis and even death, according to Nationwide Childrens' Hospital.
They're so dangerous that in 2012, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) halted the sale of the high-powered magnet sets and instituted a product recall. However, an appeals court overturned that decision in December 2016.
The new study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, examined all reported cases of children swallowing the batteries from 2008 to 2019.
Researchers found that during the period where the sale of the magnets was banned in the U.S., there was a 33% decrease in cases of children swallowing them. Once the ban was lifted, cases ultimately jumped 444%.
There was also a 355% increase in the number of cases that were serious enough to require hospital treatment. Cases from 2018 and 2019 alone accounted for 39% of all magnet injuries since 2008.
"Regulations on these products were effective, and the dramatic increase in the number of high-powered magnet related injuries since the ban was lifted – even compared to pre-ban numbers – is alarming," said Leah Middelberg, MD, lead author of the study and emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children's.
"Parents don't always know if their child swallowed something or what they swallowed—they just know their child is uncomfortable—so when children are brought in, an exam and sometimes X-rays are needed to determine what's happening. Because damage caused by magnets can be serious, it's so important to keep these kinds of magnets out of reach of children, and ideally out of the home."
Young children aren't the only ones ingesting the tiny magnets.
"While many cases occur among young children, parents need to be aware that high-powered magnets are a risk for teenagers as well," said Bryan Rudolph, MD, MPH, co-senior author of this study and gastroenterologist at CHAM. "Serious injuries can happen when teens use these products to mimic tongue or lip piercings. If there are children or teens who live in or frequently visit your home, don't buy these products. If you have high-powered magnets in your home, throw them away. The risk of serious injury is too great."
Both Middelberg and Rudolph believe federal legislation is necessary to limit the strength and or size of magnets sold as part of a set. They also believe the CPSC federal safety standard that would effectively restrict the sale of these magnets in the U.S. should be reinstated.
"The decision to ban any consumer product should carefully consider the risks, benefits and alternatives," wrote Dr. Rudolph in a 2020 op-ed for USA Today. "But data regarding high-powered magnet sets is clear: the utility gained by society is outweighed by the harm to children."