Children and Magnets: a Fatal Attraction


The Consumer Product Safety Commission last week filed an administrative complaint against Maxfield and Oberton Holdings, LLC, the manufacturer of Buckyballs and Buckycubes suggesting that their product represents a threat to the public.

At issue is the safety of magnets.  But not just any magnets.  Remarkably powerful rare earth magnets that are small, shiny, colorful and very attractive to groping toddlers.  When two are ingested they have a way of finding one another.  When they catch a loop of intestine, the pressure leads to loss of blood supply, tissue rot, perforation and potentially death.

I’ve made a career out of pulling things from tiny stomachs.  From corsage pins to button batteries, few things scare me.  But I’ve cared for two of of these cases.  They’re not pretty.

Despite product warnings, ingestion incidents are on the rise and reports of surgical emergencies in children continue.  According to member data now emerging from the North American Society of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (NASPGHAN), this problem is underreported.

While the sentiment arising from social discussion suggests that parents should just look after their kids, it isn’t so simple.  I remember as a pediatric resident witnessing the injuries that happen to children.  I consistently passed judgment until I had kids of my own and realized that parenting is a lot easier said than done.  And after the warning-clad product packaging has long been discarded, the small metal balls left on a desk or in an ashtray aren’t likely to receive the same attention as other more obviously dangerous products and substances.  Less than a problem of labeling or supervision, this just happens to be a product that’s compelling to any child within eyesight.

In social spaces the CPSC’s actions are being carefully positioned by Maxfield and Oberton as an issue of politics and personal liberty.  But don’t be fooled.  This isn’t about a conspiracy, it’s about protecting kids from something that can really mess ‘em up.  And while Buckyballs would like you to believe that the CPSC has an axe to grind, the American Academy of Pediatrics and NASPGHAN have had rare earth magnets on their radar for years now.

Those clamoring for their right to bear neodymium might do well to follow a pediatric surgeon, gastroenterologist or emergency doc at a large children’s hospital.  You’re likely to see things differently.  Or better yet, talk to the unsuspecting parents who had no idea what these innocuous looking little spheres could do.

For more on rare earth magnets and the kids who swallow them: