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Small toy magnets growing danger to teens and tots

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013 4:00 p.m. CDT

ORLANDO, Fla. — Christin Rivas, 14, was fascinated by the small, round toy magnets that you can sculpt into shapes and use to perform magic tricks.

Put a pen on a desk, hold a magnet underneath and watch the pen move across the desktop.

While playing with a couple of these rare-earth magnets at her Satellite Beach, Fla., middle school last week, Christin needed both hands to grab something, so she decided to hold the mini-magnets in her mouth. Someone made her laugh, and … gulp. She swallowed the magnets.

Five days later, Christin was at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, Fla., having the magnets surgically removed from her intestines, along with a small section of her colon and her appendix.

Labels warning that magnets are harmful if swallowed have not stopped an increasing number of kids from putting them in their mouths or noses and then getting them stuck in their bodies, where they can cause serious harm.

The groups that get into the most trouble are children age 5 and younger, and tweens and teens, who use the magnets to mimic tongue, lip, cheek or nose piercings.

“Kids swallow a lot of objects,” said Dr. Tejas Mehta, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Arnold Palmer who treated Rivas, “but from a GI perspective, magnets cause more damage than anything else.”

That risks soars when more than one magnet goes down.

Magnets will work so hard to find each other that their force can cause intestines to twist and become blocked. The pull can also cause erosion, then ulceration, and eventually the intestine can perforate, causing infection, Mehta said.

Four out of five kids who swallow multiple magnets will need an invasive procedure, such as an endoscopy or surgery, said Mehta, who has heard of kids swallowing magnets and needing massive bowel resections.

From 2002 to 2011 magnet-related emergency-room visits among Americans younger than 21 increased fivefold, according to a recent study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

During that 10-year period, 22,500 magnet injuries were reported. Usually the kids swallowed the magnets, but about one-fourth put the magnets up their nose, said Julie Brown, an emergency-room doctor at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and lead author of the study. The magnets break loose and go in, not out.

Based on data Brown has seen since then, the problem shows no sign of slowing.

“There is something very tempting about them,” Brown said. “When playing with this fidgety toy, you want to put it in your mouth. You want to try to separate the magnets with your teeth.”

To toddlers, they look just like the silver-ball candies you put on cupcakes, she said.

Buckyballs, a set of 216 magnets that consumers can manipulate into sculptures and chain jewelry, is one culprit. Last year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission asked retailers and makers of Buckyballs and Zen Magnets, a similar toy, to stop selling them.

But you can still find them online, said Brown, who has researched the issue and claims more than 3 million sets of the magnet sets have been sold. At 216 magnets per set, that’s 600 million in circulation.

Other magnet-containing products are equally worrisome, she said, citing metallic bulletin boards that have little magnet pins, refrigerator magnets that look like candies or coffee beans (begging to be tasted) and fishing games that involve a magnet on a rod.

Many emergency-room physicians don’t know how serious the problem can be. When Barbara Rivas took her daughter to the emergency room at Wuesthoff Medical Center, the doctor ordered an X-ray, then sent Christin and her mother home and said the magnets would pass.

That advice didn’t set well with Rivas, who did some online research.

“That’s when I hit the panic button,” she said.

After going to another ER, she was referred to Arnold Palmer, where doctors admitted Christin and tracked her magnets’ path by X-ray.

Normally, food or foreign objects take six to eight hours to go from entry to exit, Mehta said. When the magnets Christin swallowed stalled at the neck of the large colon for 24 hours, doctors decided to operate.

Anyone who has surgery on the small bowel runs a 10 percent chance of developing a bowel obstruction later in life, Brown said.

“Don’t even think about touching them or buying them,” Christin said. “I messed up my intestines. I worry about that down the road.”

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