As magnet ingestions by children reach record highs, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has scored a victory in a more than 10-year battle to keep extremely dangerous tiny magnetic balls out of the hands and mouths of children.
On March 17, 2022, HD Premier issued a joint recall with the CPSC for about 119,620 sets of DigitDots magnetic balls, citing the risk of severe internal injuries that these magnets pose if swallowed. The magnets are high-powered spherical magnets, made from the rare-earth element neodymium. When two or more of these magnets are swallowed, they are attracted to each other, or to another metal object, and can puncture holes through the narrow walls of the large and small intestines. This results in perforations, twisting and/or blockage of the intestines, infection, blood poisoning and death. Surgery is often required to remove the magnets, along with parts of the intestines and bowels.
According to the recall notice, HD Premier is aware of four children who ingested DigitDots and required surgery to remove the magnets. In addition, the CPSC is aware of numerous reports of children and teenagers ingesting other companies’ high-powered magnets and requiring surgery, including two deaths.
The recalled DigitDots came in two sizes: 3 mm and 5 mm. The 3 mm magnets were sold in sets of 512 multi-colored magnetic balls. The 5 mm magnets were sold in sets of 222 silver magnetic balls or 224 multi-colored magnetic balls. They came in clear, disposable packaging bearing the “DigitDots” name and logo, and a plastic carrying case, also bearing the “DigitDots” name and logo, was included. The magnets were sold online at ilovedigitdots.com, Amazon and other websites for between $20 and $30.
The recall notice instructs consumers to immediately stop using the magnets, take them away from children, and to contact HD Premier for a refund.
While the DigitDots recall will almost certainly prevent serious injuries to children, it does not end the CPSC’s long-running battle on multiple fronts to protect children from dangerous rare-earth magnet products, which are sold under many different brands.
In 2009, rare-earth magnet sets became a new product sensation. The sets are comprised of colorful magnetic balls with a candy-like appearance that can be molded into designs and shapes. Manufacturers put these magnets into the market under the guise of selling them for adults ― as sculptures, stress relievers and desk toys ― when they fully know that their products appeal to small children, as they are shaped and colored like candy. Mischaracterizing these magnets as products for adults only allows companies to avoid a voluntary safety standard created in 2007 that restricts the strength of loose magnets in children’s toys and requires high-powered magnets to be permanently connected to prevent ingestion.
The hidden danger of rare-earth magnets lies in the fact that they are often 10 times stronger than ordinary magnets, such as refrigerator magnets. All rare-earth magnets — not just DigitDots — pose a clear and grave risk to children when ingested. In addition to attracting to each other inside the body, the powerful magnets can attract to metal objects outside the body, such as a large belt buckle. Although the CPSC requires products containing these high-powered magnets to be labeled for ages 14 and older, the warning is clearly inadequate. Furthermore, while the magnets may be purchased for adults or older children, there are often younger children in the house who have access to the magnets.
Moreover, once the BB-sized magnets are removed from their packaging, the warning is lost since it cannot be placed directly on the product. And since the magnets are sold in sets containing hundreds of BB-sized balls, it is easy for some of the small balls to become misplaced, and for a child to ingest the magnets without a parent noticing.
From 2009 to 2018, there were two deaths in the United States and at least 4,500 cases of small magnet ingestion treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments, mostly involving children ages 11 months to 16 years old, according to the CPSC. Even teenagers, who generally can be trusted not to put small objects in their mouth, have ingested high-powered magnets while trying to simulate tongue, lip and nose piercings or attach them to their braces. However, these numbers are almost certainly understated, as injuries are not always reported to the CPSC.
Most recently, in January 2021, a 14-month-old girl from Chicago died from a bowel perforation after swallowing seven BB-sized magnetic balls from a Christmas present that a relative gave to an older sibling. In the days leading up to the child’s death, she did not eat or drink and had vomited on numerous occasions. But as her entire family was sick with COVID-19, doctors mistakenly attributed the child’s symptoms to the coronavirus and recommended that she be tested and monitored. The magnets were discovered during an autopsy.
Contrary to popular belief, the CPSC does not have the authority to recall unsafe products without a company’s cooperation absent litigation. If a company refuses to cooperate, the CPSC must engage in protracted litigation or administrative proceedings to force a recall. Moreover, if the CPSC wants to notify the public about a hazardous product, it usually must get the company’s permission first. If the company objects, which it most likely will do, the CPSC, again, may be forced to litigate the issue. With an estimated 2.7 million magnet sets sold to U.S. consumers from 2009 to mid-2012 alone, it is not surprising that many companies have resisted the CPSC’s efforts to rein in the industry. In short, the CPSC, whose charge is to reduce the risk of injuries and deaths from consumer products, has fought for more than 10 years to get this dangerous product off the market and out of consumers’ homes.
In 2011, after receiving reports of 22 incidents in which children swallowed high-powered magnets, including 11 reports of children who required surgery, the CPSC issued a public warning about the “hidden hazard” associated with “these innocent looking magnets.” As the magnets continued to find their way into children’s hands and mouths, the CPSC subsequently negotiated agreements with multiple companies to cease importation and distribution of the magnet sets.
In 2014, the CPSC passed a mandatory federal safety standard that effectively banned rare-earth magnet sets, only to see its regulation overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in 2016. While the ban was short-lived, it had a measurable impact on children’s safety. According to a 2021 study, calls to U.S. poison control centers for “magnet exposures” in children ages 19 and younger fell by 33 percent between 2012 and 2017 due to the ban. Calls subsequently increased by 444 percent between 2018 and 2019 after the ban was lifted and high-powered magnet sets re-entered the market. Additionally, the number of “magnet exposure” cases that were serious enough to require hospital treatment skyrocketed by 355 percent after the ban was lifted.
Despite the setback, the CPSC forged on, and in 2021 achieved a major victory. After nearly a decade-long legal battle that bounced between administrative and federal courts, the safety agency succeeded in forcing a mandatory recall of about 10 million Zen Magnets and Neoballs magnets. Read more about the Zen Magnets and Neoballs magnets recall.
Most recently, the CPSC is trying again to create a mandatory federal safety standard for high-powered magnets. On January 10, 2022, the agency issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that would set a safety standard for products that are designed, marketed or intended to be used for entertainment, jewelry (including children’s jewelry), mental stimulation, stress relief or a combination of these purposes, and that contain one or more loose or separable magnets. The proposed rule seeks to address the risk of injury or death associated with magnet ingestions, by requiring loose or separable magnets in these products to be either too large to swallow, or weak enough to reduce the risk of internal interaction injuries when swallowed. Toys that are subject to CPSC’s mandatory toy standard are exempt from the proposed rule because that standard already includes requirements to address the magnet ingestion hazard in children’s toys (i.e., products designed, manufactured or marketed as playthings for children under age 14).
At a public hearing conducted by the CPSC on March 2, 2022, representatives of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the North American Society of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, Kids in Danger, Consumer Federation of America, and Consumer Reports all testified in favor of the proposed magnet safety standard.
Alan M. Feldman, a co-founding partner and product liability attorney at Feldman Shepherd, recommends contacting a product liability attorney as soon as possible if your child has been injured from ingesting any type of magnet, whether from a child’s toy or a product age-labeled for adults.
Feldman, whose product liability work has a particular focus on products that harm children and infants, said that companies that label rare-earth magnet sets as being for adults while fully knowing that children are playing with them are not absolved from legal liability when children inevitably get hurt.
According to Feldman, “[M]anufacturers have known for almost two decades that these ‘toys’ are hazardous and can cause serious injuries and death. I applaud the CPSC’s dogged persistence over many years to have these unsafe products removed from the marketplace.”
Feldman’s team at Feldman Shepherd, which includes partners Daniel J. Mann and Edward S. Goldis, has secured substantial recoveries on behalf of young children who were injured by swallowing tiny magnets that became separated from Magnetix toy sets. The team pursued the manufacturer of the Magnetix toy sets and in combination with the CPSC and other safety advocates helped to achieve a recall of the Magnetix product.
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