About five years ago, emergency room doctor Julie Brown met an 8-year-old girl who complained about a weeklong stomach ache. The girl was tight-lipped about what might be causing the pain, and she ended up visiting the Seattle Children's Hospital, where Brown works, twice. And then a third time.
"When I examined her, she was sitting up and chatting with me," Brown tells Shots. "She looked so well."
Then, the young girl's doctors ordered an X-ray, and found something odd. "She had a stack of magnets and batteries in her stomach," Brown says. "She went right to the operating room, where they did an endoscopy. They only found a couple of them."
The doctors realized they would have to open her up and look for the rest. What they found was a minefield of tiny, round rare-earth magnets she had swallowed.
A battery and a magnet were stuck together in her stomach, which caused an ulcer. A little further down the line in her gastrointestinal tract was another ulcer. The 8-year-old ended up losing about 10 centimeters of her intestines that had become seriously damaged.
"We actually do pretty well with less intestine, generally speaking," Brown says. "But anyone who has had surgery involving opening the bowel has an increased lifelong risk of bowel obstruction due to adhesions. So it is definitely something we wish we could avoid."
The case pushed Brown, already interested in studying foreign objects in the body, to track kids who have an appetite for magnets.
In a recent study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, Brown and colleagues documented an increase in magnet-related ailments that eventually bring young people into the emergency room.
Using national emergency room data from 2002 to 2011, Brown and other researchers found a fivefold increase in young people (up to age 21) who swallowed magnets and wound up in the hospital.
Over that period, there were about 22,500 injuries to kids from magnets. Most of the time, the magnets went through the mouth, but nearly a quarter of the injuries were caused when kids stuck magnets up their noses.
"The thing that motivated this research was what happened when the Consumer Product Safety Commission tried to get all of these makers of spherical magnet sets to take their products off the market," Brown says.
"The national data are usually sparse on details about the nature of the magnet," Brown says. "But, there are a lot of magnets available in the community now than there were previously."
A lot more.
About 3 million sets of Buckyballs magnets were sold in the U.S. from 2010 on, which is also when Brown saw an increase in Seattle cases involving magnet ingestion.
"My local study showed a similar pattern of increase that the national study showed, and all the increases were in the years between 2010 and 2012," Brown says.
Her Seattle Children's Hospital study collected more detailed information about each magnet-related injury, including type of magnet. By 2012, about two-thirds of ingestions were caused by spherical balls from magnet sets that look a lot like Buckyballs. That's up from 25 percent in 2010.
"We did find the increase could be explained by Buckyballs-type magnets," she says.
Most of the incidents involve young children, but there was also a rise among older ones, including teens. But why the uptick in magnets being swallowed by teens? Shouldn't they know better?
It turns out they're not gobbling magnets like younger kids. Instead, she says, they're mostly using them to mimic body piercings, like, say, a nose or tongue stud. And while these older kids are out looking cool, sometimes those little round magnets come loose. Next thing you know they're in the stomach or lower. Definitely not cool.