There has been a fivefold increase in magnet ingestion over the past five years in young children amid a steady rise in hospital admissions in London caused by the swallowing of foreign objects, doctors have said.
While most of the time objects pass out of the body naturally without incident, button batteries and small permanent magnets found in cordless tools, hard disk drives, magnetic fasteners and certain types of children’s toys have been associated with complications.
“We very rarely see two [magnets] we usually end up seeing five or six together … presumably children tend to grasp a lot of them. I think the most we’ve had is 20+,” said Dr Hemanshoo Thakkar from the department of paediatric surgery, Evelina London Children’s hospital, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS foundation trust, London
These types of ingestions were rising even before the pandemic, probably due to the popularisation of digital marketing of toys, he added, highlighting a particular toy that is essentially a plethora of magnetic balls that can be moulded into any shape.
“A lot of it is due to the way that they’re marketed. Websites like YouTube that popularise these toys without giving the official warnings behind them,” Thakkar said.
Between January 2016 and December 2020, there was a 56% increase in foreign body ingestion – and during this period 251 children (with 93 coin, 52 magnet and 42 button battery cases ingested) were admitted across four children’s surgical centres in the south-east of England: Evelina London children’s hospital, King’s College hospital, St George’s University hospitals and the Royal Alexandra children’s hospital.
In 2016 the four centres recorded four cases of magnets being ingested, compared with 25 in 2020.
Over the study period, one of the 42 cases of button battery ingestion required surgery for retrieval, compared with 22 out of the 52 magnet ingestions. Overall, 10 out of 251 patients had surgical complications following the retrieval of the objects – and magnets caused 80% of those complications. (Although the ingestion of a single magnet does not typically require intervention, multiple magnets tend to attract each other, which can ravage the gut.)
In the UK, regulations require all magnetic toys to be accompanied by a warning, but many manufacturers do not display these prominently. The age limit on these toys is usually equal to or more than 14 years, but the median age over the study period for magnet ingestion was seven years (four months to 16 years), the authors wrote in a letter published online in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.
Researchers are analysing whether the trend is similar across the UK, but anecdotally, said Thakkar, it appears this is “not just south-east London problem, it’s a UK problem”.