Magnetic toys prove perilous attraction

23:57, Jan 05 2013
Lila and Zeph Vagana
HARD TO STOMACH: Doctors only x-rayed Zeph Vagana's stomach area after his mum, Lila, insisted the pains he was suffering were there.

The swallowing of 20 ball-bearing-sized super-magnets by a 3-year-old Auckland boy has sparked international alarm that the products could be dumped in New Zealand after United States regulators effectively banned them.

Zephaniah Vagana endured seven weeks of agony and multiple bowel punctures as the magnets worked their way through his intestines to link up into a bracelet shape. The magnets are made of neodymium and are marketed as Buckyballs and NeoCubes.

Auckland's Starship children's hospital first x-rayed Zeph's chest. Only after his mother Lila Vagana insisted his pain was behind his belly button did they check there.

Following publicity around Zeph's plight, a New York doctor, Bryan Rudolph, a fellow in the paediatric gastroenterology division of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, contacted the Sunday Star-Times saying thousands of cases have been documented of children swallowing any of the 216 magnets that are in each magnet set.

"It took the paediatric gastroenterology community in the US a very long time to recognise the danger," he said.

"I wanted to point this out because I'm guessing magnet ingestions are a far greater problem in New Zealand."


Vagana said she had been told by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MoBIE) that Buckyballs will be banned.

No one in the ministry responded to requests for comment, but in November MoBIE's product safety principal adviser Martin Rushton told the Star-Times officials would probably ask Consumer Affairs Minister Simon Bridges to ban them "as soon as possible".

"We don't have to wait for an incident here," he said, adding the ministry had already warned parents through Plunket and Safekids.

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has proposed new standards and on December 17, the main US Buckyball importer, Maxfield & Oberton, said it was winding up. The magnets are much harder now to obtain in the US.

On Friday, there were 36 listings on Trade Me for various brands of magnet toys, including Buckyballs and rival NeoCubes.

Most of the ads offer the 216 balls, plus "spares". Only some of the listings warn of the danger to children.

The magnets that ended up inside Zephaniah were bought at The Warehouse and are known as NeoCubes. On The Warehouse website it says NeoCubes are not for children under 14 and are "not for sale inside the US".

Another popular brand, Zen Magnets, has launched a campaign in the US against the ban.

On its website it said: "Busy Federal CPSC says magnets should not be allowed; guns entrenched to knees. Uncompromising stance, mean sting, and no mind for democracy that disagrees."

It has started a website,, claiming CPSC measures are "the most unpopular market restriction" ever brought in.

It blames US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: "Her powerful voice... set off this suffocating avalanche of magnet regulation. Overall, she's a respectable politician who's done plenty of good."

Rudolph said that as the products were no longer being sold in the US, the manufacturers "will ship them to the rest of the world. It would be easy to ship them to New Zealand".

The North American Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (NASPGHAN) lobbied the US Congress for tougher rules on the magnets.

In 2011 it said US$25 million (NZ$30m) worth of super-magnets were sold in the US, roughly the same as the annual medical cost to treat children who swallow them.

Rudolph said the balls were not like the typical fridge magnet, they can eat through bone and muscle, as well as intestine walls.

Surprisingly the balls were not initially painful for a child and victims turned up in emergency rooms with non-specific symptoms.

If just a single ball is swallowed, it is usually passed naturally.

"The problems become when the magnets come together and attract two loops of bowel."

He said the outcomes from magnet ingestions in children have been horrific: death, short bowel syndrome and significant intestinal resections.

Last November NASPGHAN wrote to CSPC saying that while they were pleased some companies were pulling out of selling the magnets "there are billions of high-powered magnet balls in the environment".

Healthcare professionals worldwide needed to be alerted.

"Ingestion of high-powered magnets is serious and life-threatening."

The society pointed to the case of a Braylon Jordon who last April swallowed eight super-magnets that had been lost in the carpet of his home. "He is awaiting a bowel transplant with a poor prognosis for survival."

Braylon's treatment in Mississippi to date has cost US$3m.

A CPSC report says there have been more than 16,000 magnet ingestion emergency department visits in the US in the past decade. Among them was an 18-month-old boy who swallowed three balls and ended up in intensive care for 10 days.

In another incident, a 10-year-old girl simulating a tongue piercing, swallowed two balls. That same day, her mother took her to hospital and she was admitted for five days. The magnet movements were monitored with 10 X-rays, three CT scans, and an endoscopy.

The magnets were eventually manipulated into the appendix and then removed with laparoscopic surgery.


Neodymium magnets are the most widely used type of rare-earth magnet, and are made from an alloy of neodymium, iron and boron.

Developed in 1982 by General Motors and Sumitomo Special Metals, neodymium magnets are the strongest type of permanent magnet made.

They have replaced other types of magnet in the many applications in modern products that require strong permanent magnets, such as motors in cordless tools, hard disk drives, and magnetic fasteners.

Sunday Star Times