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Household magnets may post major threat to kids, study warns

Extremely powerful magnets found in common household items pose a major threat to children and are becoming a growing problem in Canada, warns a new study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The concern centres mainly around novelty items and desk toys made up of dozens of small, high-powered magnets. The toys have become increasingly common in recent years, leading to a rise in the number of hospitalizations and emergency surgeries, according to the study. The magnets being used in these toys are much more advanced than a few decades ago, which has led to growing concern over possible ingestion by children.

The magnets are so powerful that when they are swallowed, they can attract each other in the gastrointestinal tract and actually lead to perforations in the bowel or stomach wall, which can cause serious internal damage and even death. In the past year alone, Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children has treated 13 children who swallowed these magnets. Four required surgery and a prolonged hospital stay, according to the study. Most of the incidents involving magnets have emerged since the start of the 2000s, according to the study authors. For instance, a report from the Public Health Agency of Canada found that from 1993 to 2007, 328 Canadian children were brought to an emergency room because of an incident involving magnets. More than half had swallowed magnets. The report found the number of injuries involving magnets rose sharply in the decade prior to 2007.

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"The trend is certainly alarming in the sense that this is a new thing for us and it is increasing in frequency," said Daniel Rosenfield, a pediatric resident at the University of Toronto and SickKids.

Health Canada and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission have issued several warnings about the possible consequences of children ingesting these small, powerful magnets. While the U.S. has taken action on the issue by asking manufacturers to stop selling desk toys and other items that use these magnets, such as Buckyballs, Health Canada has yet to take regulatory action.

The study, published Monday, highlights the case of a three-year-old boy treated at SickKids following ingestion of two small, spherical magnets. The boy required surgery and repair to a perforation.

The type of magnets that are under fire are up to 20 times more powerful than traditional magnets. Magnetic sets that are increasingly common as desk toys are a significant concern because it can be very easy for children to swallow many at once. When that happens, there is a real danger of perforations and severe internal damage.

"People don't really appreciate how strong these magnets are," Rosenfield said.

He noted that some case reports have found that older children and teens may accidentally swallow these magnets if they are using them to simulate a tongue piercing. Children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or developmental delays seem more prone to swallowing magnets than their peers and their conditions may make it more difficult to tell if they have, the authors noted.

In the months since the U.S. has moved to get magnetic toys off the market, the maker of Buckyballs has gone out of business. However, other manufacturers selling these types of products are still around and caregivers need to be on alert, Rosenfield said.

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Health Canada issued a notice last August that it would send inspectors to retail stores to look into how magnetic toys are being sold and marketed. Meanwhile, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand have already banned the sale of small magnet sets.

"I think that's where we should be headed as well," Rosenfield said.

Health Canada could not be reached for comment.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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