When 14-year-old Christin Rivas got six rare-earth magnets from a friend, she had no clue the pea-sized objects would create a major health problem.
The small magnets, made from car-wheel bearings and computer hard drives, can be used to make objects move, perform magic tricks and sculpt into shapes. But when Rivas needed to grab something, she put the mini magnets in her mouth and accidentally swallowed them.
"I do feel it was one of those stupid kid moments," Rivas, who lives in Melbourne, Fla., told ABC News. "I was going to the bathroom and I put them in my mouth because I didn't want to put them on the floor. I wasn't quite thinking. The kid on the other side [of the stall] said something that made me laugh and swallow them.”
Knowing that swallowing the rare-earth magnets posed a risk, she tried to make herself throw up but failed. After notifying the school nurse, Rivas was brought to a local hospital, where personnel told her to wait until the magnets passed. But once Christin's mother, Barbara Rivas, began doing her own research, she discovered her daughter’s condition could be life-threatening.
Rivas then brought her daughter to a second emergency room armed with the research she'd found from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Her daughter was then transported to the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, Fla., where she later received surgery. While the magnets could have been flushed out with laxatives, by the time Christin was treated – six hours after ingesting the magnets – they had already entered the teen’s small intestine, which required them to be surgically removed. Doctors also had to remove a small section of her colon and appendix.
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"Kids swallow a lot of objects," Dr. Tejas Mehta, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Arnold Palmer who treated Rivas, told the Orlando Sentinel. "But from a GI perspective, magnets cause more damage than anything else."
When swallowed, magnets will use their force to try to find each other, which can damage the intestines. The pull can also cause erosion, ulcers and perforation, which can lead to infection. Despite the dangers, magnets still find a way into children’s stomachs, making magnet-related emergency room visits increase by fivefold between 2002 and 2011, according to a recent study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.
"There have definitely been cases where a loop of the intestine or stomach is caught between the two magnets," Mehta said. "If you are unlucky, it can twist the intestine and choke off the blood supply. It's pretty crazy."
Now back at school, Rivas keeps the two tiny magnets in a bowl in her house.
"They are very dangerous unless they are used for the right things," Rivas said. "I wanted to make people more aware of this before Christmas when younger children can get ahold of the stuff. There is a 60 percent morbidity. A little kid wouldn't survive."