Dangerous Attraction: What You Don’t Know About Magnets Can Kill Your Child

This article was originally posted in June.. since this is still a popular gift, we are re-posting as a warning to parents… 


Get ready to have your children show you a very funny trick. They are going to say, “Look, Mom!” and make you think they pierced their tongues. After you look horrified and start lecturing them, they will laugh and show you it isn’t really a piercing, it’s just magnets. Then you’ll both laugh.

Some people aren’t laughing, though. They’re in intensive care at the hospital after swallowing these magnets. It’s more common than you think, and it’s on the rise.

Ask your kids if they have heard of these magnets. If you have a young teen, they probably have. Some of the middle school age and high school age kids are sharing them with friends. I doubt if they even saw the package warning label, which says not to swallow them. Instead of saying “Don’t put it in your mouth,” which is the only way to swallow a magnet in the first place, they are showing each other how to make it look like they have a pierced tongue. They think this is hilarious and cool.

What kind of magnets are these?

Scientists have discovered how to make super strong magnets — stronger than any magnets we’ve seen to date — fit into tiny metal beads. These are sometimes called “rare earth magnets” or “builder balls”, and they are very popular. They are the same size as ball bearings (bb’s, like in a bb gun). The magnetic balls are almost like clay in how they form shapes, and they are even more fun because they stick to each other even if there is skin in between them. That means the magnetic balls can be used in pairs to look like fake earrings, fake nose rings, and fake tongue rings, too.

Magnets are fun. What’s the big deal?

It’s really fun to play with these things. I know, because we had some at our house for awhile that a friend let my daughter borrow. The very quality that makes them so much fun — staying attracted through skin — is also what makes them so very dangerous.

Injuries from swallowing magnets are just like being shot in the gut with a BB gun, one time for each magnet swallowed.

I personally know a little girl who swallowed some of these ultra strong magnetic balls. Just like the magnetic balls attract through the skin to look like earrings, they continued to attract each other all the way through her digestive tract. Once they reached the coiled part of her intestines, they attracted each other right through her skin and made holes in her intestines. They burrowed through her appendix, which had to be removed. The surgeons tried to wash them out, but the magnets continued to rip through her abdomen, so they had to be taken out surgically. It took several surgeries to get them all out. We’ve all been worried sick that she wouldn’t make it. Thanks to the incredible doctors at Children’s Hospital, it looks like she is going to be ok, but she has a long road to recovery.

In addition to all the pain, this poor kid hasn’t been able to eat for two weeks, and her IV drip can’t contain anything that could become infected in her intestines.

Children’s Hospital said there have been 6 other incidents since January, and if you look online there are many incidents reported in the news. Rare earth magnetic balls are very, very dangerous.

Am I overreacting?

When I first heard the true reason my daughter’s friend was in the hospital, my first reaction was, “Why haven’t these things been recalled?” Then, I checked myself. Am I being what my cousin Lenore Skenazy, a.k.a. “The Worst Mom in America,” author of Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry), would call an overprotective helicopter parent?

Lenore is always calling out people who overreact to the bumps and bruises in life. We lock horns every so often, and it’s not because she lets my street-smart city kid nephews ride the New York subway alone. I have a problem with product failure. I think broken products need to be off the shelves. She thinks parents should teach their kids how to handle themselves even if there is significant danger present, and I must admit she has a point. That said, I still want broken products off the shelves.

Since this blog, SDMOMfia, is a collective effort, I asked some of my friends what they thought of the problem. Most of them had never heard of the rare earth magnet balls, but within an hour of approving the topic, Stefanie Mullen said, “Holly, my 14 year old son and I are sitting here watching tv and he says look mom. I look over and he has those magnets in his mouth!! I completely freaked out. Apparently the kids are all passing them around at school. I explained to him how dangerous they were.”

Lily Ashley said, “It’s a chain and everyone of the links is responsible, companies, parents, children; in their own way. It IS a hard things to tackle, all you can do is hope that things will change.”

After some thought, I figured it out. I don’t want the magnetic balls recalled because they are not broken products. They are not advertised for children, and in fact, one of the more popular brands of super magnets, BuckyBeads, devotes a significant chunk of their website to the warning, “Keep away from all children!” in big letters. That brand also has a warning on the label about intestinal damage from swallowing.

It’s glaringly obviously these things aren’t designed for kids (including middle school aged kids), and the manufacturers don’t want our kids to play with them or put them in their mouths. So, when children misuse these magnetic balls by putting them in their mouths for any reason, it’s probably similar in terms of “inappropriate use” to when kids get sick after sneaking into their parent’s liquor cabinet. It’s a product intended for mature adults, and children cross a line when they use it.

Every kid knows the liquor cabinet is off limits. But, most kids don’t know the rare earth super magnetic balls are off limits. Neither do their parents, teachers, or school administrators. We need to find a convincing way to get that message across.

Maybe it’s time to ban rare earth magnetic balls from school

What I propose — and I think it’s reasonable to expect this in light of the manufacturer’s website warning — is for magnetic balls to be banned from schools. If a school wants to use supermagnets for science lessons, they should follow the toddler choking test: if it fits in a toilet paper roll, it’s too small.

If these magnets are banned from schools, it will alert parents to the danger, and they will be less likely to buy them for their children.

There is a recent precedent for this with a popular brand of shoe with a roller skate wheel in the heel. When these roller skate shoes were banned from most schools, it became almost impossible to buy them. I know, because I’ve been to 12 stores trying to find them for my child (who promised to take the wheel out at school).

Don’t let kids put magnets in their mouths. Ever.

From a young age, I want kids to know that some things just don’t belong in their tummies, and magnets are right up at the top of the list. There are many, many cases of middle school aged children swallowing magnetic balls by accident. Younger kids might swallow something to get a rise out of friends, or because of a dare, or just to see what will happen. There are kids who will also go out of their way to do something their parents or teachers don’t want them to do. That’s why children need to see the pictures and know the truth about the extend of the injuries that can result from swallowing magnets.

If a school ban isn’t possible (and why wouldn’t it be???), at the very least, the dangers of magnets needs to be taught along with the magnetism curriculum, in my opinion.

To be clear, I’m not talking about a sanitized, “It can cause intestinal damage.” No! Spell it out clearly, harshly, and in a way they can’t possibly forget, because it could save their lives. It can also avoid lawsuits, which I’ll just throw out there for anyone who needs the business end of it to do the right thing.

Can you imagine the science lesson? “Magnets attract. Super magnets attract no matter what is in between them, including you. If you swallow them, it will feel like you have been shot, and they will rip through your body painfully and you will have to have needles stuck in your hand and tubes stuck up your nose and probably your stomach cut open to get them out. You won’t be able to eat, you won’t be able to walk, and you won’t be able to go out and do fun things with your friends for a long, long time. You might even die. Some kids HAVE died, so don’t even think about putting them in your mouth.”

Then show them some disgusting pictures from the operating room.

That ought to do it.

What do you think about all this? Comments are moderated but heartily welcomed. If you want to spread the word, you can add this to your Facebook wall, or join the new Causes Page, Don’t Let Kids Put Magnets In Their Mouth.

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