New craze almost fatal

Seven-year-old Joel Smith poses after surgery with an X-ray showing the six magnets that he swallowed.
Seven-year-old Joel Smith poses after surgery with an X-ray showing the six magnets that he swallowed. 

Parents at 43 schools from Sydney to the central coast have been sent a warning letter after a seven-year-old student became seriously ill from swallowing six magnets children use as fake piercings.

Joel Smith, who is in year 2 at Sacred Heart Catholic School at Mona Vale, underwent five hours of surgery last Saturday after clusters of the magnets became clamped together either side of his stomach wall.

They said they were an hour to an hour and a half from perforating the bowel and if that happened it would have been touch and go ...

Doctors feared the magnetic pressure was hours away from rupturing his bowel, which could have resulted in peritonitis.

Similar magnets, each smaller than the size of a pea, claimed the life of a toddler late last year in Queensland. They are sold as adult desktop toys for ''management stress'' and generally carry warnings that they are not for children. But children are using them as fake lip or tongue piercings.

Joel's mother, Melinda Smith, a flight attendant from Sydney's northern beaches, spoke with The Sun-Herald from The Children's Hospital at Westmead where her son was still undergoing treatment. She said the magnets were given to Joel on a school bus and were part of a new trend at the school.

''He had been playing with them, using them as fake lip or tongue piercings - lots of kids are doing it. He swallowed them accidentally over a few days,'' she said.

''We took Joel to a local hospital and they did an X-ray, two doctors looked at it and said it looked as though they would pass through but to come back in a week if they didn't.''

Although the X-ray showed the balls in a line, the discharge letter from the hospital stated ''no signs of obstruction'' and suggested a repeat X-ray if they had not been passed in a week's time.

She said her husband, Andrew, also a flight attendant, was told by another parent, a paramedic, that magnets were not good to have in the stomach.

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The next day, Ms Smith decided to talk to her doctor, who suggested the family take Joel straight to Westmead.

''He had a five-hour op on Saturday evening,'' she said. ''The surgeons were fantastic.'' Ms Smith said her son struggled after the operation. ''For two days he basically didn't come to,'' she said.

''It has been a terrible experience. They showed me the X-ray showing how quickly and aggressively the magnets had joined up and said he would have been a very, very sick little boy. They said they were an hour to an hour and a half from perforating the bowel and if that happened it would have been touch and go.''

Dr Genevieve Cummins, who operated on Joel, said the magnets crush whatever soft tissue is between them until it perforated. She said two balls were found in Joel's stomach and four were in his small bowel, which had caused the ''death'' of a small part of it.

''If there had been any more delay it could have started leaking into his peritoneal cavity,'' she said.

The Children's Hospital said it had previously operated on two other cases.

The Catholic school diocese of Broken Bay sent the letter on Tuesday to parents, saying that a school, which it did not name, had banned the magnets.

''If your child has a toy of this type please explain to them the dangers of using these magnetic spheres and impress upon them the seriousness of this matter,'' the diocese wrote.

Ms Smith had a message for other parents: ''You should not let children of any age near magnetic balls. This is absolutely an adult-only product.''

The Sacred Heart Catholic School did not return calls.