The Checkout

Toy Industry Will Delve Into Magnets

Today, the toy industry is setting up a special committee to investigate whether there should be a voluntary safety standard for magnetic toys. The move follows a major recall of a popular magnetic toy building set, Magnetix, after a 21-month-old boy died from swallowing magnets that had broken free from the building set his older brother had gotten as a birthday present. See my earlier item.

The toy committee of the international standard-setting organization, ASTM International, is meeting today to discuss the growing use of magnets in toys and will set up a working group that could well conclude that some new warning label is needed. It also could decide to take a more drastic step and require some sort of performance test or standard for magnetic toys, perhaps even limiting the strength of magnets in certain toys.

The working group stems from the March 31 Consumer Product Safety Commission recall of certain Magnetix building sets, which, in turn, was prompted by the November 2005 death of the 21-month-old boy. Magnets had twisted his small intestine and created a fatal blockage.

Calling the product "unsuitable for young children," the CPSC said in March that it knew of 34 incidents involving small magnets, including four serious injuries in children from 3 to 8 years old. Three children had intestinal perforations that required surgery and hospitalization in intensive care. Additionally, a 5-year-old aspirated two magnets that were surgically removed from his lung. As a result of the recall, the agency has received more reports of incidents involving magnets but yesterday had no official new tally to report. It will be participating in the ASTM meeting today.

Until now, magnets in toys haven't posed a major safety problem, noted Joan Lawrence, chairman of the ASTM subcommittee on toy safety (she's also vice president of standards and regulatory affairs for the Toy Industry Association). "Magnets are used in so many educational and science toys," such as the letters posted on refrigerators that help teach young children how to spell, Lawrence said. "The death of the young child has drawn everyone's attention. We want to get to the bottom of that, to see if anything has changed" that merits the creation of a safety standard.

Safety officials said that the strength of the magnets may be what's different; what's been on refrigerator for years may have magnets far weaker than what's currently in the building-block systems that use magnets. And some of the current magnets are so strong that if more than one is swallowed, they can be attracted to each other inside a child's intestine, causing a potentially fatal perforation or blockage.

"There are so many products on the market, their uses and strength need to be taken into consideration," said CPSC spokeswoman Julie Vallese.

The Magnetix recall did not lead to the removal of all of the products from store shelves, but rather a limited selection that seemed to be the problem in many of the complaints received by Rose Art, the company that makes Magnetix. For the toys already in homes, the company offered other Rose Art products as replacement toys. Rose Art also directed stores to pull off all Magnetix labeled for 3-100 year olds; sets for 6 and up could remain. And the company asked stores to post conspicuous warning signs about the toy at any Magnetix display and at the cash register.

I don't know about you, but I've been to several stores and have seen mixed results. At some stores, I couldn't find any warnings about Magnetix; in others, they're quite small, while some have prominent warnings. The same is true online. I'd like to hear from you what you've seen. Plus, let me know about your experiences if you have tried to exchange your Magnetix for another toy. How well did the process work?

Post your comments here--or e-mail me at

By  |  June 6, 2006; 7:50 AM ET Consumer News
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Hello. We purchased two of the Magnetix kits -- the 70pc regular kit and the 70pc glow-in-the-dark set. (I guess you could say we were doubling our trouble with the g-i-t-d toy, although I'm sure they don't still use radium for the "glow"!)

I read your article about the recall and immediately called the Rose Art toll free number. It was impossible to get through to it for about a week to ten days. When I did they took the information down, then forgot about me.

A month later I called again, they took the information down, and about eight days later I received a UPS-prepaid bag to put the toys into and ship back to them. Last week I received an email message from them saying they had received the toys, but still needed me to reply with all my specific information again before they could send an unspecified toy. (The RoseArt website implied that we would have a choice between two toys but I am not sure that still applies. It's anyone's guess whether the replacement toy will be of interest to my son.)

Note that while I returned two kits, only one toy will be returned. I also own about 2,000 of the much-superior Geomag pieces and I can imagine some families who bought heavily into the Magnetix kits being seriously underwhelmed.

To be fair, I think getting any toy back from them is better than keeping the Magnetix in play. The plastic caps that retain the magnets crack and break so frequently that my boys stopped playing with them some time ago.

We visited the Annapolis Toys 'R Us yesterday for other reasons, and a number of Magnetix kits were featured prominantly, with no warnings. It bothered me enough to ask at the Customer Service desk. As you'd expect, they were clueless.

Thank you for your reporting on this. -Gary

Posted by: Gary Goldberg | June 6, 2006 10:44 AM

Where were the parents of the 21-month old child that swallowed the magnets? In my family, as long as a child has to wear diapers, the child never plays without supervison. The only time the child is left alone is when it is sleeping. That was true for our children and is currently true for our grandchildren too.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 6, 2006 11:10 AM

This seems like another example of a fine toy being sent to a premature grave. While I wholeheartedly agree with an earlier poster who observed that the Geomags are far superior to the magnetix brand (which I hope do not suffer collaterally), my family owns several sets of each and we're not interested in exchanging them. My four-year old's increased awareness of symmetry and geometric design after using these products has been astonishing. With our two-year old, we simply supervise his use of the toys, throw away loose magnets immediately, and regularly remind both boys that swallowing a magnet means "instant death" - in our family, at least, incredulity has always grown in proportion with common sense.

Posted by: Pragmatist | June 6, 2006 12:14 PM

Which toys are "labeled for 3-100 year olds"?

Posted by: Jay | June 6, 2006 1:24 PM

I have to disagree with the poster who asked about the parents of the child that died. I have a three year old who I watch constantly, but even then kids are kids and ofcourse he plays by himself in the living room while I'm fixing dinner etc. I keep my house safe as possible and only keep toys that are age appropriate (going to be hard with the second one on the way). Some of this involves trust that the toys manufactured are safe for him to play with. So I'd say yes, my child is supervised at all times, but I don't keep an eye on him 24/7. Sometimes I think, if some terrible accident happened while I went to use the restroom, I would probably be labeled as negligent. It's unfair to blame the parents when something like this happens.

Posted by: Arlington, Va. | June 6, 2006 2:10 PM

Do we have any statistics about intestinal blockages/problems caused by magnets as opposed to those caused by say, lego bricks? I can't see what's special to a magnet, it would do the same damage to a small child's body structure than a piece of plastic I guess. The things are more massive of course and might possibly leak nasty metals once in the gut (Do these contain nickel?)

Posted by: El Tonno | June 6, 2006 3:29 PM

El Tonno...picture the small inestine. Now imagine magnets passing through it, and while in different segments the magnets become attracted to each other. This causes a kink, just like in your garden hose. Only it's not water that's being blocked, and the hose is made of delicate membranes, not reinforced rubber.

Posted by: jw | June 6, 2006 3:39 PM

I read about this recall and deaths and was horrified. I had been to Target and almost bought the Magnetix for a friend's son's Birthday. My husband stopped me and said, "They also have a little baby- and the toy is not for children under 3, what if their baby was to swallow it". So we did not buy it. I recently went to Target in Silver Spring, MD and it is still sitting on the shelf - no recall - nothing.....

Posted by: DD | June 6, 2006 4:35 PM

My daughter is 23 months old, and she gets to play with GeoMag toys, but under very close supervision. Similarly, matchbox cars, finger paints, and other things not best swallowed get eagle eyes and a parent within a foot.

She gets to play with large, unswallowable blocks under far less supervision.

If the toy is poorly made, such that it is relatively easy for a child to get a magnet off and swallow it, then it should be labeled accordingly, and likely recalled if not so labeled. If, on the other hand, the toy is properly labeled for age, then I do not see this near-panic regarding the Magnetix toy as a good thing.

Kids take some risks, and parents protect them as we can. Proper labeling is a big part of that, but good sense is as well. In the end, it comes down to the toy makers to reasonably label their toys, and us to make sure that the children play with them in a reasonably safe way. Further, to increase our supervision when they are taking a bigger risk.

We will not be able to protect our children forever, and so it behooves us as parents to let them take risks where the potential harm is not overlarge, and to minimize risks of serious harm. We must, though, realize our own role - not perfect protector, but experienced adult human who can see risks they cannot, and judge based on more experience whether the potential reward of a fun toy is worth the risk.


Posted by: Scott Ellsworth | June 6, 2006 7:24 PM

When my son was 18 months he found a pebble on our steps walking into our house, I made him hand it over. He popped it into his mouth in front of me and swallowed it- a period of less than 5 seconds. A few calls to his doctor made me feel better, but not every childhood disaster equals "parents not paying attention." Kids are fast.

Posted by: Don | June 6, 2006 7:34 PM

Thank you Don for making the point of kids being quick.

While I do feel that most parents of today's generations have become lax in watching over their children, it's not always their fault.

I would also like to point out that children have been swallowing things for centuries, from rocks to coins and even small sharp objects.

I'm excusing the maker's of this product for the sub-standard construction. However, I do feel that sometimes things are blown out of proportion. While it is very sad, I say do the math. What percentage of fatal injury requires a recall?

I'll say it again. KIDS SWALLOW THINGS ALL THE TIME! The next time a child has a major blockage resulting in death, from swalling a penny are we going to ask the US Mint to recall coins?

Posted by: Michelle | June 8, 2006 2:02 PM

Dear parents -

Check out the whole truth.

Posted by: A Mom | June 8, 2006 10:11 PM

I first heard about the problem with the toys in December 2005 as I stood in line at a very popular chain store. The customer in front of me was purchasing 3 kits of Magnetix and the customer behind me saw her selections and remarked upon a newstory on the dangers of the toy. They got into an in-depth discussion for a couple minutes and the first customer ended up leaving the toys behind. The story made the local tv news coverage that night.

What struck me as particularly loathsome was the amount of unconcern expressed by the cashier who wore an "assistant manager" badge. She never became part of the conversation, looking mostly irritated that it was happening at all. Several times she sucked her teeth and once threw her hands up in the air as she looked at the line growing behind us. After the first customer left, the person behind me and I watched a stock person come by and she just handed over the 3 boxes of toys to be returned to the shelves. The woman behind me instantly left the line to approach the Customer Service desk - I assumed to ask for the manager. I did not have personal knowledge of any issues or news stories before that point but I found it rather idiotic that an 'assistant manager' would be that unconcerned.

The store I was at is a huge national retailer partner of Rose Art's yet I have yet to see any significant action taken to notify customers of the recall, sticker warnings on the boxes, or place warnings at the register.

I took time to mention the recall to the manager very soon after the recent television announcement on our local news. I even repeated the news to the same assistant manager who witnessed the conversation about the toys the same day I first learned about it. Both people told me they were "unaware" but thanked me for the information. They were not unkind about it and I attributed their amnesia to the fact the original info and news stories of incidents with the toys came around the rush of the holiday season.

Whether or not the toy was mishandled by unmonitored children who were subsequently injured is irrelevant in my opinion. Rose Art and the CPSC took reasonable action regarding the recall. It seems to be the retailers that are being irresponsible and lazy.

Posted by: Underwhelmed Consumer | June 10, 2006 12:29 PM

In response to posts about blockage and the coin recall correlation posted on June 8 - the problem with magnetic toys is not blockage, but the tiny magnets connecting to each other through the intestinal walls. After connected, they then twist and loop the intestines eventually causing tissue death and blood poisoning. These magnets are not the same thing we all had on our refrigerators growing up, but super-powerful pieces that are being pulled out of their plastic casings by each other. In fact, they are so strong that it actually takes a great deal of force to pry them off of metal. The magnets are also very small - about the size of an aspirin - so easily hide in carpet or other places without the parents seeing them.

This is not a parental supervision problem, but a toy industry oversight that is long overdue to be fixed.

Posted by: Concerned Parent | June 15, 2006 1:32 PM

News update - Health Canada issues a new advisory after research shows 96 incidents involving Canadian children ingesting or inhaling magnets over an 11 year period. 96 incidents!? KOMOTV Seattle runs a story on this emerging issue. Go here to view the video and check News in Canada.

Posted by: A Mom | June 15, 2006 8:54 PM

I am the mother of a 5-yr-old who required surgery for a life-threatening bowel obstruction caused by swallowing Magnetix. I chose to buy the toy because my children were all age 5 and up, and there was no INGESTION warning - only a choking hazard. I, too, agree that the toy had real potential as a learning tool.

I looked at Magnetix repeatedly and thought a lot about the potential for harm before buying the toy, but I never dreamed it could cause such an injury. I figured the pieces are small and smooth. Worst case scenario - he swallows it and we would be told to patiently wait for it to pass. How wrong I was! My son became critically ill and required abdominal surgery to save his life.

Even when a toy is clever and fun - when deciding to market it for use by children - valid safety concerns must supercede educational potential.

Posted by: Melissa RN | October 2, 2006 1:37 AM

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