The dangers of ingesting rare earth magnets and button batteries

Pediatric gastroenterologists are sounding the alarm about rare earth magnets, known commonly as “bucky ball” magnets, Zen magnets or Neoballs magnets. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recently re-issued a mandatory recall for the magnets due to serious ingestion hazards for children.

The small, spherical magnets, which frequently are used as desk toys or in tool kits, can become stuck in the gastrointestinal tract if swallowed, leading to potentially life-threatening consequences.

Neodymium sphere magnets

“The magnets can travel anywhere in the GI tract, and because they are powerful, they tend to find each other and attract,” said Dr. Wenly Ruan, clinical instructor of pediatric gastroenterology at Baylor College of Medicine and a pediatric gastroenterologist at Texas Children’s Hospital. “When that happens, the tissue caught in between the magnets can perforate, which is very dangerous.”

Doctors have seen an increase in cases of children ingesting the magnets since a previous CPSC ban on the magnets was overturned in 2016, according to Ruan. That led pediatric gastroenterologists to push for another ban this year. Dr. Douglas Fishman, professor of pediatrics at Baylor and director of gastrointestinal endoscopy and therapeutic endoscopy at Texas Children’s, warns parents and caregivers to be on the lookout for the magnets, which may still be for sale in stores even after the recall.

Ruan and Fishman says parents and caregivers should take a child who is suspected to have swallowed magnets to the emergency room right away. In some instances, endoscopy or surgery may be required to remove the magnets.

“The majority of children will have no symptoms initially, which is the scary part,” Fishman said. “If we wait for symptoms it is much more serious.”

Fishman and Ruan also warn caregivers to keep children away from other common household objects, such as button batteries, which can cause severe damage to the digestive tract if swallowed. These batteries can be found in remote controls, toys, car keys, and other portable devices.

“Over the years, these batteries have ‘improved’ to be more powerful, so they last longer,” Fishman said. “The battery acid can lead to major injury to the esophagus and surrounding blood vessels like the aorta. Those injuries are life-threatening and need to be addressed immediately.”

“Even though packaging on these dangerous items has gotten harder for children to open, we know children will continue to find and ingest these items,” Ruan said. “It’s really important to be aware of what’s in the home.”

Ruan and Fishman say that research and advocacy work continue to be done at Texas Children’s Hospital and worldwide to improve the management of these patients.

If you suspect that your child has swallowed a foreign object, please seek medical attention immediately. For more information on ingestions, please visit the Poison Control website.

-By Molly Chiu

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