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Personal magnetism

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The adult fashion for body piercing seems to have had a strange spin-off in children. Over a period of 51 days (13 April to 3 June 2000) 24 children aged 5–15 years attended Sheffield Children's Hospital because of problems related to the body application of small magnets ().

These magnets are neodymium magnets, made from a mixture of iron, boron, and neodymium, and they are said to be five to ten times stronger than ordinary magnets. They measure 7 mm × 4 mm × 1 mm. The children applied paired magnets across body parts (nose 11, penis 3, ear 1) or swallowed them (9). One child, a girl of 9 years, had swallowed several magnets during attempts to imitate tongue piercing and presented initially with diarrhoea and vomiting diagnosed as gastroenteritis. Two days later she came back with abdominal pain and bile stained vomiting. x ray showed opacities in the lower abdomen and at laparotomy there was a “mass of magnets” in the peritoneal cavity and she had one perforation of the caecum and five of the small bowel. She spent one week in the intensive care unit and another week on the ward before going home. She had swallowed the magnets separately over a period of time and they had therefore been able to pass into the bowel separately and attract each other across bowel loops. In the other eight children who had swallowed magnets they stuck together as a single mass in the stomach and the children came to no harm.

The magnets were so strong that it was very difficult to slide or pull them apart and attempts to do so caused pain. Of the 11 children with magnets in the nose two needed general anaesthesia for their removal and most had to be referred to the ear, nose, and throat department because the magnets could not be removed in the emergency department. Several children had necrosis of nasal mucosa. One of the three boys who had got a fold of penile skin caught between the magnets needed sedation with midazolam before they could be removed.

Children were selling these magnets for a penny each in the schoolyard but where they got them from is not known. Most of the children came from a fairly restricted area within the city and local press publicity markedly reduced the number of cases.