Meredith DelPrete, age 10, was playing at school one day and didsomething that she said is popular among kids her age: pretendingto have a pierced tongue. the Fairfax County, Va., fifth-gradertook two tiny magnetic balls out of her pocket and placed one ontop of her tongue and the other on the underside. the magnets, thesize of a BB, are extremely powerful. they made it look like shehad a tongue stud. She opened her mouth to show a friend.
That’s when the tiny silver orbs rolled off.
“I could feel them in the back of my throat. I tried to get themout, but I couldn’t. So I just swallowed them,” she said in aninterview this week.
That accidental swallowing led to five days at Inova FairfaxHospital, at least 10 X-rays, three CT scans and an endoscopy.Finally, on Jan. 20, a surgeon used a metal instrument tomanipulate the magnets into her appendix, avoiding major surgery.he then removed her appendix, and the magnets, doctors said.
Not only are they in children’s toys, but they are also injewelry and are marketed as stress-relief toys for adults. Themagnets that Meredith received as a gift are a popular brand knownas Buckyballs, which are 5 mm in diameter. the labels warn to keepthem away from children, not to put them in the nose or mouth, andthat swallowed magnets can cause serious injury or death.
Hospitalized at the same time as Meredith was another10-year-old, a boy, who had swallowed three ball-bearing magnets.he eventually passed them without incident, doctors said. OnWednesday, a third case, involving a 9-year-old boy, was brought toInova Fairfax and transferred to Georgetown University Hospital inWashington, a doctor said. the boy’s condition could not beimmediately determined.
Neither Meredith nor the other 10-year-old suffered seriousinjury, doctors said.
When two or more magnets are swallowed, they can attract eachother internally, resulting in serious injuries, such as smallholes in the stomach and intestines, intestinal blockage, bloodpoisoning and even death, according to safety and healthofficials.
Last November, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued itsfirst product-wide warning about ball-bearing magnets in adultproducts in a joint news release with manufacturers. the commissionhad received 22 reports of incidents involving the magnets from2009 through October 2011, it said. the actual number is probablyhigher, doctors said. Inova Fairfax alone had three cases in lessthan a week.
Although parents of younger children are generally warned aboutthe hazards of small toys, there is less public awareness amongparents — and even medical professionals — about the risk ofmagnets, especially when older children use them to emulate tongueor lip piercings, according to parents, doctors and safetyofficials.
“The potential for serious injury and death if multiple magnetsare swallowed demands that parents and medical professionals beaware of this hidden hazard,” said Commission Chairman InezTenenbaum. “This is not a children’s product and should be keptaway from children.”
Three doctors who treated Meredith said they did not knowchildren were using magnets to mimic piercings.
“I had not heard about it until that evening,” said Sharon Day,an emergency-room doctor on duty when Meredith and the other10-year-old were hospitalized. Day quizzed her two high-school-agechildren. “I said to my kids, ‘Are you guys doing this?’ . . . Theyweren’t, but they had heard about it.”
Marsha Kay, who chairs the pediatric gastroenterology departmentat the Cleveland Clinic’s Children’s Hospital, said magnetingestion is increasingly being reported among children in recentyears.
“They’re very popular and perceived to be safe,” she said.
The first reports in the United States began appearing in 2005.That year, a 20-month-old boy died after swallowing ninecylindrical magnets from an older sibling’s toy building set,according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.the magnets had magnetically joined across two loops of intestine,causing a twisting of the bowel that led to a fatal bloodstreaminfection. Since 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission hasreceived more than 200 reports of children swallowing all kinds ofmagnets; at least 18 children required emergency surgery to removethe magnets.
At least two major toy manufacturers have issued voluntaryrecalls of toys with magnets since 2006; in 2010, the maker ofBuckyballs and the commission issued a voluntary recall ofBuckyballs magnet sets to update the labeling.
“This is a big, big problem,” said Ben Enav, the pediatricgastroenterologist who treated Meredith and the 10-year-old boyhospitalized at the same time. In the past year, he has had a thirdcase, another school-age child who swallowed the same type ofmagnets and needed surgery because of a perforated intestine.
“I can see how an innocent bystander can think this seems allvery benign and nothing to worry about, but if these things getseparated and are floating through your intestine,” they can causeserious injury, he said.
Even urgent-care and emergency-room clinicians have assumed –incorrectly — that they can send a child who has swallowed magnetshome. “They are not aware of how serious a problem this is,” Enavsaid.
Craig Zucker, chief executive for Maxfield & Oberton, themanufacturer of Buckyballs, said the company puts warning labels infive places, inside and outside the boxes. the company worksclosely with the safety commission to spread the message that themagnets should be kept from children.
“We don’t sell to stores that sell exclusively children’sproducts or toy stores,” he said. “We are doing everything we canto make sure it’s not getting to children.”
Brookstone, one of many retailers that carry the magnets, saysthey are a popular item. A boxed set of 125 Buckyball magnets sellsfor $24.99. A company spokeswoman said new product trainingincludes warnings that they are for adults only.
Meredith said she likes the Buckyballs because “you can use themfor fake piercings on your ear, your nose, lip or tongue.” Onbraces, too. the magnets are also very strong, she said, “so youcan make different stuff out of them.” Many friends already hadthem, so she was excited to get them for Christmas. Her siblings,11 and 13, also each got a box.
She didn’t read the warnings on the box about not putting themagnets in her nose, her mouth or ears. “I just opened it,” shesaid.
“It was probably my favorite of everything I got until Iswallowed it,” she said of the magnets.
On Jan. 17, a Tuesday, she was in the library at Oak ViewElementary School, checking out a book with a friend. Two tinymagnets were in her pocket.
After she swallowed them, Meredith, at her friend’s urging, toldthe school nurse. the nurse sent Meredith back to class, but as acourtesy, notified Meredith’s mother, Helen DelPrete. DelPretecalled her pediatrician, Gary Bergman, as a precaution, and wastold to take Meredith to the emergency room immediately.
Luckily for Meredith, the two magnets had connected in heresophagus, making the situation less dangerous, doctors said. Forfour days, the doctors monitored the movement of the magnets inMeredith’s body. She was not allowed to eat. they proceeded withsurgery after the magnets became embedded in her largeintestine.
Helen DelPrete said her husband bought the magnets for thechildren and didn’t notice the warning labels. She said she wasn’taware of the warnings until after Meredith was hospitalized. “It’setched on the plastic container [holding the magnets], but youcan’t even read it — it’s the same color as the plasticcontainer,” she said.
The hospital charges so far are about $22,000 but when theindividual doctors’ charges are added, the total cost could betwice that figure, she said.
She has confiscated all the magnets from her children. Meredithsays she still wants to play with them but wouldn’t put themanywhere near her nose or mouth.
Popular magnets pose risk if swallowed