A popular trend among middle school children in La Jolla has become a potentially deadly health threat.
The culprit is something a little unusual: magnets. Students are playing with a toy made of small, magnetic balls called Buckyballs that can be connected together to replicate jewelry.
At first it doesn’t sound dangerous, but when the magnets are swallowed, problems can occur.
Children have accidentally or purposefully consumed the magnets when they have put two balls in their mouth to represent a tongue piercing, or in their nose to resemble a nose ring. If multiple balls are ingested, they are powerful enough that they can attract each other within the intestine. The magnets can then trap bowel movements, obstruct digestion or even pierce the intestinal tract. Symptoms that suggest something has gone awry after swallowing the magnets include abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting.
Despite a clearly labeled warning on the box stating: “Keep away from all children,” not everyone is aware these magnets are risky.
Earlier this month a 12-year-old, sixth-grade student from was admitted to Rady Children's Hospital after swallowing eight of the magnets. Surgery was performed, and the incident prompted pediatric surgeon Dr. Timothy Fairbanks to warn the public.
“Children should not play with magnets small enough to put in their mouth, and older children should know the risk,” Fairbanks said.
On Thursday, the doctor showed an X-ray of a child’s stomach, which displayed magnets stuck together in the intestine. A simulation was also shown, displaying the potential for perforation or obstruction.
“This seems like a very benign, innocuous item,” he said, “But this is a dangerous item for any child to play with ... and it is a very serious health hazard.”
When the magnets are swallowed in one clump, they do not present as much of a danger as they travel together through the intestine. But Fairbanks said he wouldn’t risk not being check out by a physician.
“I wouldn’t be comfortable with my own child with that condition not having surgery to make it better,” he said.
Other doctors in the area are also concerned. Dr. Stephen Hayden, a clinical medicine professor at UC San Diego, sent an e-mail alerting parents of the toy’s hazard. He recommended that the magnets should not be placed anywhere near the mouth or nose in order to avoid ingestion.
Five years ago, a similar incident resulted in the death of a 1-year-old child. The product, Magnetix magnetic building sets, was later recalled. Fairbanks said it’s a similar situation now, just a different toy.
When told about this incident, La Jolla-area childcare specialist Caitlyn Davis said she’d never heard of the balls, nor seen children playing with them. Now that she is aware, she said she would alert parents.
“Younger children are especially very curious, so I think it’s important for parents to know what types of toys their children are playing with,” she said.
Muirlands Middle School informed parents and administration of the incident, warning about the toy’s danger. Jeff Luna, a Muirlands vice principal, said he is unaware if the magnets will be completely banned from school.
“Different things come up all the time, who thought we’d have to ban magnets?” he said.
While magnets may not have been completely banned from local schools, businesses are capitalizing on the popular toy. La Jolla bookstore Warwick’s has a display of the magnets at the checkout counter. There is even a set of the magnets out of the box for people to play with on their own.
Fairbanks warned that parents should stay alert to what their children are playing with. Should a child ingest these magnets, he recommends seeing a physician immediately.