Magnetic toy balls should be banned, experts say

CPSC proposes rules to prohibit selling balls of certain size and strength

Published: October 22, 2013 05:20 PM

Buckyballs, Zen Magnets, and other high-powered magnetic desk toys have been popular holiday gifts in recent years. But at a public hearing today held by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, several doctors urged not only that consumers should cross these dangerous toys off holiday shopping lists but also that these magnetic balls should be banned from the U.S. market.

The desk toys typically contain more than 200 tiny round or cube-shaped neodymium magnets that are at least 15 times more powerful than standard magnets. They stick together with such force that if a child swallows more than one they can draw together parts of the gastrointenstinal track, boring holes in the stomach or intestines. This could result in severe, life-threatening complications within hours.

These products are labeled for those 14 years and older and carry warnings about ingestion hazards. But the tiny magnetic balls increasingly have ended up in children’s hands and mouths, often causing serious injuries. Young children, for whom mouthing behavior is a natural part of early-childhood development, are most at risk for swallowing these magnets. Teens also have been injured when they accidentally swallowed rare-earth magnets they were using to mimic lip and tongue piercings.

The CPSC hearing focused on its proposed new rules. The rules would prohibit the sale of neodymium magnetic ball sets containing even a single magnet that has a flux index, or magnet strength, of more than 50 and which is small enough to fit within the small-parts cylinder the CPSC uses to test for choking hazards.

A set of magnetic balls like these would typically have more than 200 pieces.

Doctors and consumer advocates on the hearing panel strongly urged the CPSC to make final and adopt its proposed safety standard. Panelists also asked the CPSC to ensure that its definition of high-powered magnetic products would encompass jewelry, pens, and other novelty items that comprise primarily or entirely small high-powered magnets.

“The CPSC’s previous actions—including improving warnings, publishing public service announcements, and recalling of existing products—were necessary and appropriate, but it is clear that additional steps are needed to protect public safety,” said Ami Gadhia, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

While 11 U.S. companies already have voluntarily stopped selling rare-earth magnetic desk toys, others continue to do so, including the Denver-based Zen Magnets and Star Networks USA, which sells Magnicube Magnet Balls and Magnet Cubes. The CPSC has sued both companies to compel them to stop selling magnet sets and comply with a recall.

Some magnet importers and other critics have argued that the CPSC’s proposed safety standard amounts to government overreach, and they blame parents for their children’s magnet-related injuries. But doctors at the hearing strongly argued that small neodymium magnets pose a unique and unacceptable risk that justifies the CPSC’s proposed action.

Of the 100,000 foreign-body ingestions that occur each year in the U.S., mostly in children, coins are by far the most common object ingested, but others include sharp nails and pins. Even so, most pass out of the body naturally, with only 10 to 20 percent requiring endoscopic removal and less than 1 percent needing surgery, said Ian Lebowitz, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University. But high-powered magnetic ingestion cases are much different: 80 percent require some form of medical intervention and 20 percent of these need significant surgery. “I have taken out hundreds of different foreign bodies in my career but few pose the morbidity risk of these magnets,“ Lebowitz said.

A ball from a magnet set and a choking-test cylinder (a bit wider than a quarter).

Bryan Rudolph, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, disputed claims that negligent parents are to blame for children’s magnet ingestions, saying that no amount of warning or parental vigilance can prevent these magnet ingestions, which he described as "accidents involving an irreparably unsafe product."

Within the last year alone, there have been at least seven published reports of high-powered magnet ingestions affecting children in the U.S. For example, a recent study based on an analysis of emergency-room data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System estimates that from 2002 through 2011, 7,159 emergency-room visits were attributable to high-powered magnet sets.

And a survey of 201 pediatric gastroenterologists from 44 states identified 481 cases of documented magnet ingestions in children from 2002 to 2011, with 320 of them occurring from 2009 through 2011. The high frequency of magnet ingestions in that three-year period corresponds to the introduction of high-powered magnet desk toys.

The number of publicly reported magnet ingestions really represents "only the tip of the icebarg," said Marsha Kay, M.D., chairwoman of pediatric gastroenterology at the Cleveland Clinic Chindren's Hospital. Kay said that within the last two weeks, a young doctor in training at a New York City hospital had told her that she had encountered five cases of magnet ingestion in the last 14 months.

Pointing out that one company alone—the former Buckyballs maker Maxfield & Oberton—sold 1.5 million magnet sets between 2009 and 2011, Maria Oliva-Hemker, M.D., chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, told CPSC commissioners that “sales of high-powered magnet sets by multiple manufacturers indicate that there are billions of high-powered magnet balls now in our environment.” Therefore, she said, the risk of magnet ingestion by children will remain high for a period of time despite all efforts by doctors and consumer groups to educate the public about their dangers.

In fact, eliminating the risks posed by high-powered magnet sets requires not only banning their sale but also “doing everything possible to remove products already sold from any environment where children live, visit, play, or learn,” said Athos Bousvarous, M.D., president of the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition, in a statement released jointly by consumer-advocacy groups and medical associations.

For  more information on neodymium-magnet risks and how to prevent injuries, visit the CPSC's Magnets Information Center.

—Andrea Rock


Due to a transcription error a previous version of this article incorrectly identified 482 cases of documented magnet ingestions in children from 2002 to 2011, and also incorrectly stated that 820 (not 320) of them occurred from 2009 through 2011.

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