Christmas is around the corner and this means exciting new toys! Sadly, there has been a rise in the sale of dangerous super strong magnets wrongly being sold as toys, or included within other products, and whilst these might not be gifted to your young child, they could still get access to them via an older sibling, relative or friend. As we all know, the problem with magnets is that they are designed to stick together and later in the blog we hear about one family’s horror when their 3 year old daughter swallowed 14 tiny colourful magnets. We would urge you to read this blog and think carefully about what presents you buy this year, and to be alert for those gifted by relatives and friends that may contain super strong magnets.
Why are these dangerous magnets more easily available?
Whilst we love a bit of online shopping and it has made our lives easier, it has muddied the waters regarding the sale of toys which may not follow UK safety standards. Since 2020, the British Toy and Hobby Association has noticed a rise in the sale of unsafe toys, including easily swallowable small magnets being sold as “toys” that don’t meet toy safety standards, mostly via third-party sellers on online marketplaces. In fact, their latest research showed that 48% of toys being sold by third-party sellers on online marketplaces were unsafe for a child to play with. Unlike traditional retail, online marketplaces are not legally required to check the safety of products that other sellers are listing on their sites.
I was shocked by how many different types of these magnets are readily available via a simple internet search, often made to look colourful and appealing, and described as “toys”.
What are these super strong magnets and where are they usually found?
Super strong magnets are also known as neodymium or rare-earth magnets. Unlike traditional magnets they are small enough to be swallowed easily but have a very powerful magnetism, meaning they strongly attract other magnets or metallic objects to themselves. Examples include:
- Magnetic beads in jewellery making kits
- Magnetic pieces sold for art and crafts
- Magnetic balls from building kits
- Magnets from building block toys and magnetic “stones” (long blocks of magnets in pretty colours)
- Magnets from “fishing” toys
- Magnets from magnetic dartboards
- Fridge magnets
- Fake magnetic tongue piercings (more of a concern for tweens and teens)
What would happen if my child swallowed these magnets and how would I know that they had swallowed them?
The problem with these super strong magnets is that because they are very small, a child who has accidently swallowed them will usually have ingested more than one. And this is where the problems start. Magnets don’t stop being attracted to one another just because they are inside a child’s body. They can tear holes through intestines and bowels. If they attach to one another through organs they can cut off blood supply and cause bodily tissue to die. A child who has swallowed super strong magnets will almost always need emergency surgery and depending on the severity of injury, may need numerous operations to correct the damage done. In the worst case scenario, super strong magnets can be lethal.
Super strong magnets pose a particular danger to babies and younger children who won’t be able to tell you they have swallowed them. It is not always obvious that magnets have been ingested, but signs to look out for are:
- Stomach pain
- Not keeping down fluids
You may suspect a tummy bug or even appendicitis if your child has swallowed super strong magnets.
If you suspect your child has swallowed magnets, dial 999 for an ambulance or get them to A&E as soon as possible.
Real life story: 3 year old Rebecca
In 2021, Sam McCarthy bought a Christmas present from a third-party seller on a well-known marketplace for her eldest son. That present nearly killed her 3-year old daughter, Rebecca.
Freddie, 10 got swept up in the magnetic ball craze (tiny, brightly coloured super strong magnets) and was absolutely thrilled to find three packets of them when he unwrapped his gifts on Christmas Day. But the festive fun quickly turned into a nightmare.
On the 28th January, Rebecca started to vomit and clutch her stomach, repeating a word that the family had never heard her say before: “Owie.” Her family had no reason to expect anything other than a tummy bug, and were encouraged that after a nap Rebecca was able to eat a bit of toast. Poor Rebecca continued to vomit on and off as children do with a bug, and after seeking medical advice, Sam gave her Dioralyte and waited for the bug to pass through her system. However, by the next morning Rebecca was unable to move without crying out in pain.
Her symptoms grew increasingly worse and after a call to 111, Rebecca was rushed straight into examination at her local hospital. X-rays were taken and to the family’s horror, the doctor came running from behind the screen and asked if Rebecca had ever had surgery before. Sam answered no. The doctor asked again: “Are you sure she’s never had surgery?” Sam repeated, “No, never, why are you asking?” He responded: “There’s something inside of her!’’
On closer inspection, the doctors confirmed that 14 miniature magnets were lodged inside Rebecca’s intestines. They had to be removed immediately and Rebecca was rushed to Royal London Hospital for emergency surgery. Sam was terrified and has since described it as the longest night of her life. She was in a hospital miles from home during a global pandemic knowing her daughter had these potentially lethal magnets inside her intestines.
“What felt like a million forms were placed in front of me. I had to sign paperwork informing me that Rebecca could lose all or part of her intestines, depending on the damage caused, and that her blood type was now ready in case she needed to be transfused. She could come out of surgery with a colostomy bag and scarring from the incisions. The surgeon assured me that his team would do everything they could and I implored them: no matter what you have to do, just save my baby. It felt like I was signing her life away.
The surgeon told me that this was not the first, and it won’t be the last time, that he and his team would need to perform this operation. I wish this gave me comfort, but it didn’t. That’s my baby in there and she should never be in this situation. I hated myself so much. And couldn’t stop thinking about all the other children and families this had happened to.
As Rebecca was taken into surgery, I had to hold my baby down to get her to sleep and all she kept saying was, ‘No, Mummy. No.’ She was so terrified, and all I could say in response was, ‘My baby, I’m so sorry.’”
Eventually the surgeon returned with a pot containing the 14 multi-coloured magnets that they had successfully removed from Rebecca’s body. Those magnets had managed to burst through and rupture three parts of Rebecca’s intestines. She was lucky to be alive.
Rebecca remained in hospital for most of that week, making sure there was no infection after her surgery and that everything was healing properly. But Rebecca is not fully out of the woods yet. Her scar tissue from surgery could tear and the family has been warned to closely watch out for any recurring sickness.
On returning home, Sam could tell the huge emotional toll the experience had taken on her family. She felt they were no longer safe in their own home. Sam’s older children were fearful about playing with their toys, in case they could kill their baby sister.
And getting rid of the super strong magnets was so difficult – Sam says:
“We purchased a giant magnet to sweep the entire house for any more of the smaller magnets that Rebecca had ingested. Even though those magnets had only been played with by my two older children, they had still attached themselves to so many things. It was like a flea infestation.
They had stuck to the screws under furniture – so without a magnet or physically upturning the furniture, you wouldn’t have found them.
I had purchased three packs of 216 toy magnets from an online marketplace. But we couldn’t locate all 648 magnets. These things are so small and come with no warnings. Someone isn’t going to sit down and hand count all 648 magnets when they first receive them. So at this point, I had a persistent fear that some were still unaccounted for.
Christmas is coming up and my children live in fear of unsafe toys because of what happened.”
Make sure the toys you buy online are safe with the following tips:
- Avoid buying toys sold by third-party sellers via online marketplaces as this is where toys that don’t meet UK safety standards are more commonly sold
- Check the product packaging of the toy for age appropriateness and any warnings
- Check the toy has a UK or EU address – this is a legal requirement to sell toys in the UK
- Check the toy has a CE or UKCA mark
- Buy from British Toy and Hobby Association members who sign up to a commitment to toy safety
- Report a product you think is unsafe to your local Trading Standards team
Thank you to Sam and her family, and the British Toy and Hobby Association for sharing this frightening story in the hope others will not have to go through what they experienced. It is truly terrifying that something so small, colourful and appealing to our curious little ones can be marketed as toys when they are potential killers. Please share this story with family and friends and make this Christmas one which is free from super strong magnets.
All the best,
Charlotte @ Mini First Aid, in collaboration with The British Toy and Hobby Association
You can find out more about the important work of The British Toy and Hobby Association here
Sources: The British Toy and Hobby Association (BTHA), Child Accident Prevention Trust (CAPT), NHS UK
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