Small magnets can cause big problems

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 8, 2011

By Sarah Campbell
A local principal is warning parents about the dangers associated with magnets after an elementary student landed in the hospital after swallowing two last week.
Woodleaf Elementary School Principal Sue Herrington said a fourth-grader’s mother contacted her Monday after learning her son had ingested one Thursday and one Friday.
The boy had been experiencing stomach pain the entire weekend, before telling his parents about the accident, she said.
Herrington said an X-ray showed the magnets connected in the boys intestinal tract.
Dr. Bertrand Fote, an emergency physician and medical director at Rowan Regional, saw the boy before transferring him to Presbyterian Hospital.
He did not disclose why the boy was moved, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
Fote said swallowing more than one magnet can cause serious problems, including punctures to the lining of the intestine and tears in blood vessels that can interfere with blood flow.
“If you puncture a bowel, it can release free fluid that can cause a patient to get very sick and patients can die from this,” he said.
After seeing a news report about a 13-year-old Colorado girl who swallowed two magnetized ball bearings that burned a hole in her intestine and hearing about one of her own students doing so here, Herrington sent out an e-mail message throughout the district.
“Please keep your eyes out for these silver, metal balls,” she said in the message. “They are larger than a B.B., yet smaller than an M&M.
“We certainly want no other students to experience this dangerous fate.”
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News reports from Colorado tout the dangers of using magnetized ball bearings called “buckyballs” to mimic the look of a tongue ring after 13-year-old Lauren Garcia swallowed them.
Buckyballs are a desk toy made up of 216 magnets that can form geometric shapes and structures.
Each one is made up of two parts, one that repels and one that attracts.
The Buckyball website warns of the dangers in it’s “frequently asked questions” section under “Why Aren’t Buckyballs for Children?”
“Magnets should not be put in the nose or mouth. Swallowed magnets can stick to intestines causing serious injury or death. The warning on the box reads ‘Keep Away from All Children.’ It’s important you take it seriously,” the site says.
A Missouri eighth-grader suffered a similar fate last month when she attempted to use “NeoCube” magnets as an alternative to a tongue piercing.
KTVI reports 14-year-old Makayla Roderman spent four days at St. John’s Mercy Childrens Hospital in St. Louis, Mo. recovering after surgery to have the magnets removed.
Like Buckyballs, NeoCubes are also magnets made up of “high-energy rare earth minerals.”
And, the website states the product is not designed or intended for children under the age of 14.
“This product contains small parts that may be harmful or fatal if swallowed. Consult a doctor immediately if this occurs,” says. “The NeoCube or any of the spheres should never be put in the mouth, ears, nose, or any other bodily orifice.”
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Fote could not specify what type of magnets the Woodleaf fourth-grader ingested, but said they are dangerous no matter what.
“The stronger the magnet the more dangerous it is, but any kind of magnet, if there is more than one, could be a problem so it should be taken out as soon as possible,” he said.
Fote said because of their attractive properties, magnets tend to stay in the gastrointestinal tract, which means surgery is usually called for rather than waiting for them to pass.
“The reason you don’t want to wait is the danger,” he said.
The only other option besides surgery is using an endoscope to grab the magnets before they make it to the stomach.
Fote, who has been at Rowan Regional since 2004, said this is the first patient he’s seen who swallowed magnets.
But, he said, he encourages parents to keep magnets away from children.
“These are not toys,” he said.
Fote said parents should also question their children if they complain of abdominal pain, asking about the possibility of ingesting magnets.
He said if parents realize their children have swallowed magnets they should head to the emergency room immediately.
• • •
Principal Herrington said she spent much of Monday morning talking to students about the dangers of magnets, confiscating at least five of the silver balls from students.
“It was just really scary that one of my children is sick … no other children need to suffer,” she said. “As I talked to more and more children, I found out more of them had access than we were aware of.”
Herrington said several of the students had been wearing the magnets as bracelets, while others used them as fake piercings.
She was planning to send out a ConnectED phone message to parents Monday to let them know about the safety risks of the magnets.
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Rita Foil, Rowan-Salisbury School System’s public information officer, did not comment on whether the use of magnets was widespread throughout the district.
“Our district is analyzing the issue at this time,” she said Monday.
Ellen Boyd, Kannapolis City Schools’ director of community relations, also did not speak to whether students in the district are commonly seen with the magnets.
“We already have a policy in place that prohibits tongue rings and lip piercings,” she said.
Although magnets are not considered a piercing, they would not be allowed to be worn in that manner, Boyd said.
Rowan-Salisbury schools does not address tongue rings and lip piercings in its dress code policy.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.