To mimic body art, teens like to place two BB-size magnets on opposite sides of their noses and tongue. Toddlers, well, give them a block or bracelet made of these mini-magnets and it inevitably finds its way to their mouths. While you may think there’s no real harm, these high-powered magnets are not your Grandpappy’s fridge accessory — they are up to eight times stronger and so pose a serious risk to children. In fact, an estimated 1,700 visits to emergency rooms after swallowing these mini-magnets and though the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has been issuing warnings and recalls of these magnets since 2009, something more is clearly required. As a result, CPSC has moved to institute a ban on these products, with a final vote on the matter set for later this month.

"The potential for serious injury and death if multiple magnets are swallowed demands that parents and medical professionals be aware of this hidden hazard and know how to treat a child in distress," said CPSC Chairman Inez Tenenbaum in a press release.

Referred to as “magnet balls” or “rare earth magnets,” the products are marketed as adult desk toys, so-called puzzles of the future, stress relievers, science kits, and educational tools. Clumps of the mini-magnets can be used and reused to create two- and three-dimensional forms (such as pyramids and necklaces) and toys, including a spinning top. The danger lies in the fact that even when one of these high-powered magnets is swallowed, it does not lose its magnetic charge.

If two or more are ingested, they will continue to attract one another even if they become embedded within a child’s internal tissues. This could result in serious injury, including small holes in the stomach and colon, intestinal blockage, blood poisoning, and even death.

Which is exactly what happened last year, when Annaka Chaffin, 19 months old, welcomed her older brothers home from school carrying a small magnetic necklace they'd found. As reported in USA Today, Annaka was found unresponsive with blood gushing from her mouth and nose. While doctors believed she most likely had a virus, an autopsy revealed seven magnetic balls in her small intestines. The magnets had become attached to one another, perforating her bowel and causing sepsis.

If you suspect a child or teen has swallowed one or several mini-magnets, CPSC recommends you:

  • Seek medical attention IMMEDIATELY
  • Watch for these symptoms: abdominal pains, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Remember: multiple magnetic pieces may appear as a single object in an X-ray

Craig Zucker dissolved his company, which made the original Buckyball magnets, in December 2012. However, copycat products still exist. Under the proposed CPSC ban, only magnets large enough to not fit through a cylinder used to test choking hazards would be permitted. This video from CPSC, by way of YouTube, provides more information: