Little magnets: too dangerous for any toy, even one for grownups

A few years ago, one of my children got a set of magnetic building toys as a birthday present from a friend. It had rods and little balls that you could build into geometric shapes. They didn’t work very well, mostly because the magnets were so strong that the pieces tended to collapse together into clumps (they would almost fly together if near each other). There was something about them that gave me the heebie-jeebies, so I stored them high out of reach—and after a while, I threw them away.

Which, as it turns out, was a good move. I had small children; if one of them had swallowed two or more of the little balls, it could have been extremely dangerous. High-powered magnets (neodymium magnets) are so powerful that they can be pulled together after they are swallowed, sometimes through the stomach or intestine, boring holes as they do. In one well-publicized case in New Orleans, a child lost a large portion of his intestine because of these magnets.

Small toys (like the Polly Pocket clothes we had and threw out too) aren’t allowed to have magnets anymore for just this reason. But toys for, um, grownups don’t have the same restrictions—enter Buckyballs, which are marketed to adults as a “desk toys.”

Buckyballs are highly magnetic balls that can be molded into all sorts of shapes. They come in different colors and sizes. There have been at least a dozen reported incidents of kids swallowing the balls, but doctors from the North American Society of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (NASPGHAN) have seen many more ingestions and have had to put children under anesthesia to retrieve them.  It’s not just small children that put these things in their mouths; teenagers put one ball on each side of the tongue, mimicking a piercing.

The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) has warned people about these high-powered magnets for years, but the ingestions keep happening. Therefore, the CPSC asked manufacturers to recall their products. Most companies agreed to do this, but the maker of Buckyballs said no. So the CPSC is taking the unusual step of filing an administrative complaint (like a lawsuit) against the maker of Buckyballs, a step that NASPGHAN and the American Academy of Pediatrics applaud.

If you go to Buckyball’s website, you’ll see that they’ve got a “Save Our Balls” campaign going on. They want people to contact the CPSC. They say that it’s unfair, that they market to adults and have warning labels.

They have a point. There are all sorts of things that aren’t meant for children and can hurt them. Like thumbtacks, bleach, knives, razors or weights. Or guns. Or, as one boston.com reader said in a comment on a blog on the subject, cars. We don’t recall these things. We teach about safety, are careful and hope for the best. Shouldn’t it be the parents’ responsibility to keep Buckyballs away from their kids?

Yes…but the other things have a purpose. Buckyballs don’t really have a purpose. They are toys. Yes, they are marketed to adults—but kids and teens have a way of being where adults are. And once they are out of the box, there’s no warning label (not that a toddler or teenager would read the label anyway).  Is it really that important to have this particular toy available when it can—and has—hurt children so badly?

“I’m glad the CPSC acted the way they did,” says Athos Bousvaros, MD, MPH, associate director of the Center for Inflammatory Bowel Disease Treatment and Research at Boston Children’s Hospital, the president-elect of NASPGHAN. “The warnings haven’t worked. These high-powered small magnets, which are much stronger than refrigerator magnets, are a major health hazard to young children. If your child eats any, please take them straight to an emergency department.”

Ultimately it will be up to policymakers and the courts to decide if Buckyballs are taken off the market. In the meantime, if you have them or anything like them in your house, do what I did: throw them out.

13 thoughts on “Little magnets: too dangerous for any toy, even one for grownups

  1. I have Buckyballs, have had them since my child was young, and I have no intention of throwing them out.  They’re marvelous. 

    When I was a child, I had a magnetic toy with pieces like you describe.  I think it was called MagnaTiles.  It was great fun and educational to boot.  We had it for years, and I and all of my friends used it.  No one ever swallowed a piece, accidentally or on purpose. 

    Now, believe it or not, I am not trying to dismiss the seriousness of the injuries they can cause.   I am just asserting that the products are not the problem.  Alcohol kills thousands of people every year, and no one has moved to ban it, to name but one example. 

    As anyone who is in their 40’s-60’s can tell you, childhood play has become more and more constrained and controlled since when we were children…a time when people broke bones (occasionally) and got cut up and had all sorts of problems that were chalked up to either poor supervision or, more likely….the hazards of the joys of childhood exploration. 

    So what has changed?  People.  Common sense.  Parenting.  Education. Lawyers. 

    Magnetic toys are not for children under five.  Don’t give them to children under five.  Maybe don’t even have them in homes where there are children under five (or have them put away until the children get older), since an older child may leave them out inadvertently.   When you do use them, supervise…sit with the child and play with it (not Buckyballs, those are really for adults, but other less powerful magnetic toys).  TALK with and TEACH your children about how to properly use materials.

    In the end, the effort to keep all dangerous things away from our children is futile.  We can ban until the end of days, but there will always be something new.  Education and supervision, on the other hand, survive the test of time.

    1. What do you mean nobody has tried to ban alcohol? Haven’t you ever heard of Prohibition? In the early part of the 20th century, alcohol was banned for a period of time, leading to speakeasies, rumrunners, and federal law enforcement actions that killed many people

  2. Nice post, Claire.  This is an important issue that needs the full force of the pediatric community to counter the social dialog centered on personal liberties.  We should add that NASPGHAN has some unreleased preliminary statistics which will be supported by a more formal survey underway – this issue appears to be really underreported.  Hats off to Dr. Bousvarous for rattling the bushes on this one.

    1.  How safe is safe enough? Personal liberties have value and sometimes we choose liberty over safety. We wont be allowed to have this conversation if safety always trumped liberty.

  3. I love to play buckyballs. I would not also throw them out but I would be sure to keep them in a secure place so that children cannot access them easily, I know it is hazardous especially when accidentally eaten.

  4. Two words:  Nanny State.

    The constant overstepping has grown to epidemic proportions. You simply cannot protect everyone from everything.  Banning “sugary drinks”, buckyballs, and guns is not the answer.  Who are you to decide everything for everyone?

    Is this really “medicine” that you’re practicing?

  5. It is the responsibility of the parent, not the government, to ensure that children do not play with inappropriate objects, regardless of their intended purpose or market.  The fact that Buckyballs serve no purpose other than being a toy for adults is irrelevant.   It is the responsibility of the parent, not the child, to read the warning labels on a product and take appropriate precautions regarding the use and storage of that product.

  6. I have to take issue with the statement “Buckyballs don’t really have a purpose. They are toys.”  First, I disagree, Buckyballs do have a purpose.  Are you saying “toys” in general have no purpose?  Toys can be a learning tool and they can be therapeutic  Everyone at one time or another needs to relax.  We take vacations, we have hobbies which may include playing with a toy … even if we are adults.

    Tell me what purpose a “balloon” has?  It is my understanding that balloons account for more child deaths than any other child toy.  Noticed I said “child toy”, not “adult toy”.  Yet the CPSC has not banned balloons.  Balloons continue to cause choking deaths, but they are STILL on the market.  The CPSC says the warning labels are sufficient.  The believe they have sufficiently educated the public to the dangers of ballons.  Buckyballs have five warnings … FIVE … on the packaging.  Why are Buckyball warning labels so insufficient?  Why can’t the CPSC educate the public about Buckyballs?  Once I take a balloon out of the package, I don’t see any warnings on the balloon itself.

    I’ll be glad to listen to a logical argument for the banning of Buckyballs, if you can come up with one.  The CPSC doesn’t seem to be using the same standard for Buckyballs that they are using for other known, dangerous products.

    Oh!  And if you throw them out.  Be sure to put a warning on the trash cans that dangerous items may be contained within.  If swallowed, they could cause serious injury or death.  I don’t want the CPSC to start banning trash cans, I’ll have no place to put my garbage.

  7. Thank you for the information. Buckyballs have been on my wish list for awhile now. I just placed my order to be sure I can get my science toy before they’re banned. However, I still need to figure out where to keep my new toys, should it go next to the bleach, gasoline, or NaOH drain cleaner?

  8. I enjoy reading the blogs, but I think it is the responsibility of the parents and other caretakers to make sure their children do not come into contact with adult toys.  Banning items from adults is not the answer and walks a really fine line, in my opinion.  Adults do not need agencies to tell them what they can and cannot do in their own personal lives.  This is really rampant in Boston, it seems.

  9. It’s dangerous to just toss high powered magnets into the trash. They can really mess up garbage processing machinery and cause injury to workers down the line. What a stupid suggestion.

  10. My kid had neodymium magnets since he was 3 and always loved them. He learned a lot. I should say that even at that age he was not the sort to introduce objects into his mouth, especially not swallow them. He’s now 13, has hundreds of these magnets and has never swallowed one. I’m not saying they are safe for all children (they aren’t), but some kids are just naturally quite smart, and if you explain that they are dangerous to swallow, they just aren’t going to do it

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