Nothing novel about deadly magnets

Published: 
3 Jul 2012

The Queensland Office of Fair Trading has renewed its warnings about the dangers of small, rare earth magnets to children following the publication of a safety notice by the federal government today.

Queensland Fair Trading product safety expert Dave Strachan said the safety notice was issued following a spike in injuries from small, rare earth magnets, including the death of a toddler in Queensland late last year.

“The Queensland Office of Fair Trading has serious concerns about the sale of powerful rare earth magnets as adult novelty items, and is conducting a detailed safety investigation with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission,” he said.

“The products in question are approximately 4mm to 5mm in diameter and are marketed to adults to create patterns and build shapes.

“While they may seem like a harmless novelty, if swallowed they can result in serious injury, emergency surgery and even death.

“The problem occurs when swallowed magnets clamp parts of the digestive system together, causing life threatening injuries such as infections, perforations and obstructions.

“In a number of recent cases, children have been rushed into surgery to have magnets removed, along with damaged portions of their bowel or stomach. In one tragic case currently before the coroner, a Queensland toddler died as a result of injuries caused by magnets he had swallowed.”

According to Queensland Injury Surveillance Unit figures, approximately 18 magnet ingestion related injuries are reported to emergency departments (EDs) in Queensland each year.*

However, these figures only include 29 Queensland EDs, and do not capture those injuries that present to non-participating EDs, nor cases where diagnosis occurs following admittance to hospital. It is estimated the real figures are up to five times higher.

Mr Strachan said while there were standards in place regarding strong magnets used in toys, adult novelty items fall outside the current standards and are not subject to the same rules.

“Many of these products carry warning labels on the packaging about the dangers involved with the product, and that they are not suitable for children under 14, however, those warnings quickly go into the bin along with the packaging and are easily forgotten or ignored,” he said.

“Reports indicate kids are sharing these products at school, with children as young as seven using them as fake lip or tongue piercings.

“The Queensland OFT is also concerned that their size and appearance make them attractive to younger children, especially their similarity to sugar beads used to decorate cakes and biscuits.”

Mr Strachan said many children were either unable or unwilling to tell their parents or doctors that they’d swallowed magnets and some had sustained life threatening or even fatal injuries as a result.

“In one recent case, a 12 year old girl from New South Wales presented to hospital with stomach pains and other symptoms of appendicitis. It was only during surgery that doctors discovered five small magnets and four bowel perforations,” he said.

“In another recent case a seven year old from Sydney was taken to hospital where two magnets were found in his stomach and four in his bowel. The magnets in his bowel had clamped together, killing some of the tissue and were a mere hour or so away from causing potentially fatal perforations.”

Mr Strachan warned that parents and carers should ensure toys or adult novelties containing high powered magnets be kept away from young children.

“Any toys or adult novelties that contain high powered magnets should be secured out of reach of young children,” said Mr Strachan.

“Older children should be warned about the dangers of using these products as fake tongue, lip or nose piercings, and to report it to their parents or teachers if they accidentally swallow or inhale these products.

“And if you suspect a child has swallowed magnets, seek urgent medical attention.

“I urge people to think twice before buying these types of items – don’t think this can’t happen to you.”

For more information on product safety or for a copy of the safety notice, visit www.fairtrading.qld.gov.au

* Figure represents the average annual presentations to sample emergency departments between 1 January 2006 and 30 June 2011.

Contact details

Queensland Media contact: (07) 3247 5968

For information on product safety in Queensland visit www.fairtrading.qld.gov.au or www.productsafety.gov.au or phone 13 QGOV (13 74 68)

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