A child patient being transported to surgery
By Michael Haederle

Dangerous Attraction

UNM Surgeon Warns Against Letting Kids Near Small, Powerful Magnets

Small children have a bad habit of sticking things in their mouths that shouldn’t be there – small, powerful magnets, for instance – and swallowing them.

The worst culprits are spherical neodymium magnets widely marketed as desk toys, which are especially hard to pull apart, says Jason McKee, MD, associate professor in The University of New Mexico Division of Pediatric Surgery. “They’re stronger than fridge magnets.”


Jason McKee, MD
They’re so strong the pressure will slowly erode through the bowel, which sometimes perforates. There are kids who have had lots of bowel loss and had short gut syndrome because of this
Jason McKee, MD

The magnets can become lodged in the bowels and adhere to one another through the walls of the intestines. “They’re so strong the pressure will slowly erode through the bowel, which sometimes perforates,” he says. “There are kids who have had lots of bowel loss and had short gut syndrome because of this.”

McKee has had to operate to remove his share of magnets – including two procedures on a single day just a few months back.

“In one of the kids, there were a couple of a magnets in the stomach and a couple in the small bowel,” he says. “They had perforated through, so I unconnected them and took the magnets out and closed those two holes.”

In the other case, nine magnets had created six perforations in the gut. “We ended up cutting out a piece of the intestine,” he says.

McKee wishes parents would do a better job of keeping them out of the reach of tiny hands. Even better, he says, would be if they weren’t marketed at all – and for a while they weren’t.

“So much of this was happening that the Consumer Product Safety Commission shut them down,” he says. “It really worked. They put a ban on them and it really faded away.”

But the 2014 ban was overturned following litigation and soon the magnets were back – this time in different colors and advertised as toys for children. When he saw an online ad for the revived product line, “my heart dropped, and within a month I saw the first injury,” McKee recalls.

The cases that wind up in McKee’s operating room are the most serious ones, where the magnets have passed through the stomach into the intestines.

Gastroenterologists can retrieve small objects that remain in the stomach using a flexible device called an endoscope. “The gastroenterologists probably take more of them out endoscopically,” he says.

While toddlers are the usual suspects when it comes to swallowing foreign objects, McKee has seen some older kids as well. “It’s usually teenage girls,” he says. “They put magnets on either side of their tongue to make them look like a tongue ring, but then they accidentally swallow them.”

The problem seems to be that no one is prepared for the powerful magnetic attraction, and it creates a public health issue. “You hear it all the time: ‘I had no idea,’” he says. “There should be a warning label on the box.”

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