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The computer tablets that are so helpful to students across the country also may pose a health risk to some if they get too close to magnets in the tablets.
Shonda Knop's 6-year-old son, Jacoby, likes to use his first-generation iPad, and Knop considers iPads a great educational resource. But the Fremont, Neb., mom is concerned that magnets in newer versions of the Apple device — the ones his classmates use — could cause a pressure-control valve in the shunt in Jacoby's head to malfunction. That could lead to too much or too little fluid being drained from around his brain, possibly causing seizures.
So Knop is calling on Apple to take the magnets out of iPads to remove any risk.
Jacoby was born with spina bifida, an opening in the spinal column through which the spinal cord can protrude. Complications can range from minor physical problems to severe physical and mental disabilities.
Jacoby is unable to walk and has hydrocephalus, which is a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in and around the brain. In Jacoby and others with the condition, the fluid is drained into the abdomen from a shunt in the brain.
Doctors formerly had to perform surgery to adjust shunt valves. For many years, though, they have been able to make adjustments using a magnetized programming device.
The problem is that devices that use magnets also can alter the valve settings if the magnets get too close to the shunt.
Last year, University of Michigan researchers tested what happened to the valves using newer iPads, which have magnets on two sides that allow a magnetic cover to be attached. They found that the covered devices, when placed a centimeter or closer to the programmable valves, changed the valve settings 58 percent of the time. Setting changes occurred 67 percent of the time when the tablets were without a cover. The tablets rarely reset the valves at distances of up to 5 centimeters away, they said in the report in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Pediatrics.
The solution seems simple: Keep such devices a safe distance from one's head. But Knop said kids don't always follow directions, and table mates could pick up an iPad near Jacoby and hold it close enough to his head to cause a problem.
In April, Knop said, Apple officials helped the family find a used first-generation iPad that doesn't pose a problem for him. “That was super nice of them,” she said. “I think Apple is a great company. But unfortunately, with all the updates and all the new apps coming out, his iPad is so old it can't run a lot of the newer educational programs.”
Apple didn't respond to requests for comment.
Knop in recent weeks also has been unable to get anyone at Apple to respond to her concerns, so last week she created an online petition at change.org asking Apple to make a magnet-free iPad cover “so Jacoby and others with other disabilities can safely use iPads to learn.” The petition had 731 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.
Doctors have known for years that shunt valves and other medical devices could be affected by magnets, said Dr. Ken Follett, chief of neurosurgery at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
“It's not so much an issue of iPads, I think, as it is magnets in general,” Follett said. “You think about how common magnets are in everyday life,” he said, noting that stereo speakers and refrigerator door seals have strong magnets.
Follett said one of his patients with Parkinson's disease used to activate a pulse stimulator in her deep-brain stimulator by opening her refrigerator door and leaning against the rubber strip inside the door. Such stimulators, he said, now are controlled electronically instead of by magnets.
Mark Shepard, an associate superintendent with Fremont Public Schools, said the school Jacoby attends has only eight iPads for student and teacher use, but the district's foundation is raising money to buy 360 iPads for the district's seven elementary schools.
The district, he said, is “cognizant of student issues, definitely student health and safety issues, and we try to make whatever accommodations we need to and work with parents and work with families in that regard.”