Since 2016, when a federal court caved to the magnet industry and lifted the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)’s 4-year ban on small, high-powered magnet toys, the number of cases of children ingesting the magnets has increased nearly six times. This year there were a startling 1,600 cases, the Washington Post reported. Many of these incidents result in serious injuries requiring surgery.
The rare-earth magnets are each about the size of a BB pellet or sometimes event smaller, but hold together with magnetic strength that is usually 10 times stronger than ordinary magnets available on the market. The magnets were banned due to numerous reports of children and toddlers ingesting the toys and having to undergo emergency surgery. The magnets can pull together inside the intestines and cause life-threatening holes and blockages – risks far more dangerous than ingesting coins or button batteries.
Reports of these magnet ingestion injuries came to the attention of the CPSC in 2005 when the agency received dozens of reports of injuries and at least one death from the high-powered magnets. This prompted CPSC in 2007 to create a voluntary safety standard that limited the power of loose magnets in toys. Powerful magnets were still allowed in toys but would be required to be permanently connected so they wouldn’t fall out or couldn’t be taken out and pose a hazard. The standards worked. Injury reports dropped.
But two years later, the small magnets became a different sort of toy, a desktop fascination with big groups of the magnets that could be molded into different shapes and marketed to adolescents and adults. These magnetic toys did not fall under the CPSC regulations because they were not intended for children.
In 2011, CPSC issued a warning to consumers about the “hidden hazard” the magnets posed. The following year, with reports of magnet ingestions rising again, CPSC issued new regulations that banned the small magnet sets. Most companies halted sales of the toys, but two refused. The CPSC asked a judge to order a recall. But one company, Zen Magnets, fought the measure and ultimately convinced a federal judge that the CPSC was at fault in issuing the ban. In 2016, the ban was lifted. Rare-earth magnets were once again cleared to be sold in the U.S.
According to the National Poison Data System, there were 472 calls to poison centers related to the ingestion of small rare-earth magnets in 2008. During the ban from 2012 to 2016, the number of calls dropped to just above 200. In 2019, three years after the ban was lifted an estimated 1,580 cases had been reported.