Attractive dangers

The tiny silvery magnetic balls that perforated the intestines of 2-year-old Braylon Jordan after he swallowed them had been sold in a pack of 250, marketed to adults as a desk toy.

Braylon’s parents had bought the magnets at a pharmacy on an impulse before Braylon was born.

“We rarely bought a $30 gift for ourselves,” Meaghin Jordan, Braylon’s mother, said.

The attraction of the so-called super magnets was that they could be formed into and hold different shapes.

After they became parents, the Jordans never took the magnets out around their son and kept them in a kitchen cabinet their son couldn’t reach in a home that was child-proofed.

“We have every child-proof thing you can have,” Meaghin Jordan, of Pelahatchie, Miss., said.

But at some point, unbeknownst to Meaghin Jordan and her husband, Jonathan, some of the magnets escaped the packaging despite their best efforts.

In April 2012 when Braylon was in the hospital with severe symptoms of nausea, Meaghin Jordan saw her son’s X-ray.

“As soon as I saw, I knew what they were,” she said.

Braylon had swallowed eight of the magnets. He underwent several surgeries and lost most of his small intestines.

He now receives nutrition through a type of catheter that goes into a main artery in his neck, and, at some point, he may require a small intestines transplant.

After their son was injured, the Jordans “upturned the entire house; we scoured it” for magnets, she said. “We found two connected to the door frame” on the metal hinge.

Neodymium magnets, made of what’s considered a rare earth mineral, are used in electric motors, such as in power tools and hybrid cars, and in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) equipment.

When patents began expiring between 2003 and 2008, such magnets began showing up in toys.

The magnets are so powerful that if swallowed, they can pinch and perforate any tissue caught between them.

“It’s an inappropriate use of an industrial-strength magnet,” said Dr. Adam Noel, associate professor of pediatrics, at LSU Health Science Center, New Orleans.

At presentations he’s made to physician groups, Noel has put together a chain of magnets and picked up a crescent wrench to demonstrate the magnetic strength.

After he started seeing cases involving the magnets, he undertook informal research on his own, followed by a formal study with other physicians.

The findings were presented last year to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has undertaken increasingly stronger measures against manufacturers of the super magnets.

Older children and youth have used the magnets as fake tongue piercings and have been injured when they accidentally swallowed the magnets, Noel said.

He’s recently seen two cases of internal injury when young children chewed off the ends of darts that had the magnets in the tips.

“The dad thought he was buying a safer dart that didn’t have a needle on it,” Noel said of one case.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has taken action, with both retailers and manufacturing and importing firms voluntarily complying with the commission’s request, to stop selling or making manipulative magnet products, such as the one that led to Braylon Jordan’s injuries.

It’s also filed administrative complaints against three companies that haven’t voluntarily complied and “wants to see an ordered ‘stop sale,’ ” said Kim Dulic, a public affairs specialist with the commission.

“While the administrative process takes place, we urge consumers with kids to stop using these high-powered magnets,” she said.

Even with much of the magnetic-set products off the market, there are concerns about the little, berry-size magnets still out there.

There are “millions and millions out in circulation,” Noel said.

Noel saw two cases at Children’s Hospital last year involving the magnets, that of Braylon Jordan and of another toddler.

In the latter case in February 2012, Noel performed a 2½-hour endoscopic surgery, going down the throat of a 3-year-old boy who had swallowed 39 of the magnets.

The child’s older brother had received a magnet ball set for Christmas and left magnets on the floor.

The younger brother was on the floor, too, and put a blanket over his head. To the dismay of the parents, “he pulled the blanket off and there were no more magnet balls on the floor,” Noel said.

During endoscopic surgery, Noel was struck by “how hard they were to pull out. The adherence was so strong.”

Noel decided to post about his experience with the magnets at a physicians’ site on the Internet, looking for feedback: “I’ve had two cases; one lost 90 percent of their (small) intestines. Is anyone seeing any of these cases?”

Noel got emails from more than 20 physicians with information about 30 to 40 cases.

In the meantime, Noel said, he had two more cases involving the magnets at Children’s Hospital, and LSU Health Sciences Center began putting out the word about the dangers posed by the magnets through local media.

Noel and three other physicians undertook a formal survey, funded by the Department of Pediatrics at the LSU Health Science Center, and sent to members of the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatolgy and Nutrition.

In Part 1 of the survey, 355 physicians — 201 in the U.S. and others in Canada, Kenya, Guatemala and Mexico — reported 481 magnet ingestion cases during a 10-year period.

The case incidence per year increased every year, with 320 of the 481 cases happening over the past three years, Noel said.

Part 2 of the survey sought information on the medical and surgical interventions on patients who had swallowed the magnets.

The survey was looking at the time period of 2008 to the fall of 2012, when the neodymium magnet ball sets were marketed in the U.S.

Physicians reported 123 cases, with 102 of those occurring between 2011 and 2012, Noel said.

Typically, when a child swallows a foreign body, such as a penny for instance, perforations happen in less than 1 percent of cases; in 85 percent of the cases, the objects pass normally, Noel said.

“In our study, the majority (of the super magnet cases) are going to endoscopy and surgery,” Noel said, “79.6 percent of the patients required endoscopic surgery, surgery or both.”

“The group with the greatest risk was 3- to 6-year-olds. The second bump was for those around 10 to 12,” he said. “With regular foreign bodies, the (risk) peaks at (ages) 1 and 2 and doesn’t bump up.”