THE SHINY objects ripped through 2-year-old Benjamin Palmer's colon, guided by a force so strong his young, soft organs never had a chance.
His tiny colon became a battlefield and his appendix, a casualty of war.
The force - magnetism - is one that's been used in magic, medicine and science, but the recent surge in its popularity in toys has had near-fatal consequences for some children.
In Benjamin's case, the toy was a Magnetix set, a colorful construction kit that uses incredibly strong neodymium magnets to connect plastic building pieces.
Benjamin's mother, Melissa Palmer of Drexel Hill, had never heard of the toy when her sister bought it for her older son, Andrew, for Christmas in 2005.
"I immediately loved it because it occupied my oldest son forever," she said. "He had such an imagination that he'd build his own little worlds."
But in March 2006, unbeknown to Palmer, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recalled the toy. Tiny magnets inside the plastic pieces were falling out and being swallowed by young children, which led to horrific consequences. To date, there has been one death, one incident of a child inhaling the magnets through the nose and 27 intestinal injuries reported in connection with the toy, said Scott Wolfson, CPSC spokesman.
"These magnets are so powerful that if you place one on top of your finger and one on the bottom, they attach through skin and bone," Wolfson said. "That description alone speaks to the sheer power of these magnets."
In April, the CPSC issued a second recall of the product, again unbeknown to Palmer. The toy remained in her house, occupying her elder son.
On Nov. 3, young Benjamin began vomiting, but with no signs of a fever. Palmer thought he had a virus and kept him at home. For two days after he seemed fine, until one day he was unable to keep down food or move his bowels.
Palmer, a nurse, rushed him to Bryn Mawr Hospital, where doctors discovered within 15 minutes that his bowels were obstructed and he had a massive septic infection. It would take a few more hours, an X-ray, an ultrasound and two CAT scans on the child to discover that two tiny magnets were the culprits.
"I was scared to death. I didn't know what was going to happen," Palmer said. "Benjamin is the love of my life, my entire world, to not know if he's going to make it or not, it was hard."
Two surgeons were rushed in from DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington to operate. Doctors discovered five perforations in his colon and one in his appendix. As a result, Benjamin's appendix and 6 inches of his colon were removed.
"When a child swallows more than one magnet or one magnet and any other metal object, they rip through the intestinal walls like a bullet," said Alan Feldman, a Philadelphia attorney who is representing the Palmers in a lawsuit against the maker of the product, MEGA Brands; its subsidiary, Rose Art Industries; and the store that sold it. "These magnets do whatever it takes to find their magnetic mate."
Dr. Alan Oestreich, pediatric radiologist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital and a leading researcher in the field of magnetics and radiology, said that once magnets pass through the stomach, they may get stuck in separate bowel loops, attracting each other through the loops with such force that they tear holes and "all kinds of stuff pours out."
"Most of the old magnets . . . were less strong so they were less likely to attract across the bowel walls," he said. "The cases we've seen lately almost always have been the more powerful magnets of today."
Despite Magnetix's powerful properties and two CPSC recalls, the toy remains on the shelves this holiday season.
Harold Chizick, spokesman for MEGA Brands, a Montreal based corporation, said the company redesigned the product using a five-part system that partially caps the magnets and "holds them in place securely." They've also added a warning label to the box and upped the appropriate age range to 6 and older, he said.
He stressed that the original design of the toy was manufactured under RoseArt, which became a subsidiary of MEGA Brands in January 2006.
"Our safety record has been unblemished until this acquisition," he said. "It really is a problem we inherited and fixed rather than created."
According to Oestreich, the redesigned Magnetix could still have dangerous effects if the plastic piece encapsulating the magnet is swallowed.
"It doesn't matter if the magnets come out of the plastic casing or if they stay in it," he said. "It's the magnetic effect that counts, not how they're packaged."
Chizick said that once MEGA Brands took control of Magnetix, the company complied with all CPSC recommendations and immediately pulled all defective inventory off store shelves.
Feldman refutes that claim, saying that MEGA Brands resisted the recalls and failed to clear products from toy shelves quickly enough.
"They have always maintained they did everything properly and safely, but I want to get them in a courtroom and under oath because they're full of it," Feldman said. "There's a reason why they're settling every case and demanding that all the parties keep the settlements confidential."
The CPSC's Wolfson verified that there's an ongoing investigation into MEGA Brands, but he was less definitive when asked whether the company readily complied with all CPSC requests.
"This is a case where the CPSC had to announce two recalls because the first one was not complete," he said. "Additional toys that were in the marketplace needed to be recalled and pulled from store shelves upon the second recall being announced."
Wolfson, who said that 8 million Magnetix sets were affected under the recalls, is nervous that many of the defective sets may still be in the hands of children since the response rate to the recall has indicated that millions of units have not been returned.
"The most important point for parents in the Delaware Valley to be aware of is . . . products could still be lingering in homes," he said. "This is a product that has resulted in one death and dozens of children having to be rushed into emergency surgery to have small, powerful magnets removed from their bodies.
"So much attention has been paid to the issue of lead paint in toys, but this is a product that has the potential to cause a very serious physical danger to young children."
It's unknown what lingering effects young Benjamin faces. He'll require blood work for at least the next six months, possibly a year. And although he's able to eat normally, with 6 inches of his colon removed, he's constantly going to the bathroom, which will make potty-training the 2-year-old difficult, Palmer said.
The ordeal has also made Christmas in the Palmer household difficult this year.
"It's awful because I don't know what to buy," Palmer said. "I'm scared to buy anything that could end up making him potentially sicker than he already is." *