Young children will put almost anything in their mouth. It's one of the ways they explore the world. Things that are colorful and small are particularly attractive. As a result, too many toddlers have been putting pre-measured laundry detergent packs or powerful magnets in their mouths lately, with serious consequences. Parents need to be paying a lot more attention to how they store or where they place these relatively new threats to children's safety.

Detergent Packet Dangers

New single-use packets of laundry detergent began being widely sold in the U.S. last spring. They contain concentrated laundry detergent and several other cleaning ingredients. Their bright colors can make them look like candy or a teething toy to young children. Between January 1 and July 31, nearly 2,200 children age five or younger either swallowed the detergent or got it in their eyes, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. That's more than 10 cases a day. And the problem appears to be getting worse, with over 700 calls in August alone.

Their bright colors can make them look like candy or a teething toy to young children.

According to a report in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, the new packets also are causing more severe medical problems than older laundry detergents did. In the past, swallowing small amounts of laundry detergent rarely caused problems more serious than stomach upset. Swallowing the new detergents has been causing vomiting and respiratory problems, with some children needing to be put on a ventilator.

In Great Britain, doctors say that laundry detergent is now the most common household product that young children are accidentally swallowing.

To protect young children, parents should make an extra effort to keep these products out of their reach, preferably in locked cabinets; certainly not under the sink or anywhere else that a curious toddler can get to them.

Anyone who suspects that a child has swallowed laundry detergent should immediately call a Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Magnets Tear Internal Organs

More children have also been swallowing small, powerful magnets. Neodymium magnets are not your typical refrigerator magnets. They're usually 5-10 times stronger, and this creates a problem when they're swallowed. While one magnet usually poses no danger, swallowing more than one magnet does.

There are reports of teenagers putting two magnets in their mouth to simulate a tongue piercing and accidentally swallowing them.

The attractive force between two magnets is so strong, it works even when they're in different parts of the body. This force can create tears in internal organs, especially the bowel and intestine. An informal survey of doctors recently found reports of 80 such cases. Most required endoscopy to remove the magnets or surgery to repair damage to the bowels, with 26 children having bowel perforations.

It's not only young children who have been swallowing them. There are reports of teenagers putting two magnets in their mouth to simulate a tongue piercing and accidentally swallowing them.

The magnets come from adult toys. Under prodding from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), many manufacturers have stopped selling these toys voluntarily. Some have not. In late July, The CPSC ordered the manufacturer of one such toy, Buckyballs, to stop selling them. This was followed by a similar order to another manufacturer of magnetic toys, Zen Magnets, in early August.

There are two perspectives on these government actions. One is that they're an overreaction. The list of substances and devices that are dangerous to children is nearly endless. We don't ban scissors, bleach or lawn mowers. Why ban magnetic toys?

The other is that magnetic toys aren't needed, while scissors, bleach and lawn mowers are. The toys are highly dangerous and they're unnecessary. Banning them is simple common sense.

Whichever perspective is correct, there's no question that adults with small, powerful magnets have to do a better job of making sure that children can't get their hands (and mouths) on them. And that children who do swallow magnets or are suspected of doing so need prompt medical attention. Complications are much less frequent when a child receives medical attention within 12 hours.

An article on the problems caused by swallowing these magnets and how to treat children who do so appears in the September issue of the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition.