- Posted September 25, 2023
Water Beads Can Expand Inside Body, Causing Kids Serious Harm. Should They Be Banned?
Ashley Haugen's 13-month-old daughter, Kipley, woke up projectile vomiting in their Texas home one morning in July 2017.
The Haugens took her to the doctor after it became apparent she wasn't keeping anything down. After not responding to medication, Kipley was whisked to a nearby children's hospital for emergency surgery.
“I remember [the surgeon] showing us the picture of the material that he pulled out of Kipley's small intestine,” Haugen recalls. “He was like, ‘I found this inside her small intestine, do you know what this is?' And we recognized it immediately as the birthday gift that we had gotten for Abigail,” their 6-year-old daughter.
The obstruction was a water bead — a tiny, super-absorbent pellet of gel that expands into a soft, slippery, squishy ball when soaked in water.
Water beads are sold as toys and “sensory aids” for children, but regulators and consumer advocates are putting out an alert that the beads pose a health hazard to children.
Kids can easily ingest the beads, which can cause choking or intestinal blockage as they absorb water from the body.
Some kids have inserted the beads into their noses or ears, suffering damage as the gel expands, experts said. In some cases, beads have even wound up in children's lungs.
Some of the colorful beads start as tiny as a candy sprinkle and then grow to the size of a marble. Others start the size of a small grape and wind up the size of a golf ball.
“When you receive them, they're about the size of a pinhead. There can be 10,000 in the container that you get, and then when they're soaked in fluid, they expand,” said Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids In Danger, a nonprofit advocacy group for children's product safety.
Death in Wisconsin
About 52,000 Chuckle & Roar Ultimate Water Beads Activity Kits were recalled from Target stores earlier this month, after a 10-month-old Wisconsin toddler died in July from swallowing the beads. A 9-month-old in Maine also had been seriously injured last November when the same beads caused an intestinal obstruction that required surgery.
At the time of the recall, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) noted that an estimated 7,800 water bead injuries had been treated in emergency departments in the United States between 2016 and 2022.
Consumer Reports has launched a petition demanding that the CPSC stop the sale of water beads for kids, following an investigation that revealed thousands of injuries caused by the toys.
“We strongly recommend that you not buy them if there are children or cognitively impaired adults in the home at any time,” said William Wallace, associate director of safety policy at Consumer Reports. “It's simply not worth the risk. Water beads don't serve a useful purpose, and there are much safer options for sensory play.” These include rice, beans, pasta or peas, experts say.
The problem is that the tiny gel balls often scatter like glitter once the package is opened, Cowles said. The dry beads slip between floorboards, become entangled in carpet, or get stuck to the plush of a stuffed animal.
“You really can't help but get them all over when you open the box. They're tiny little staticky things and they just go everywhere,” Cowles said.
Parents say they keep finding them in their house for months. "They're very hard to keep track of and very hard to contain,” Wallace said. “It's not just that these are hazardous and require close supervision. It's that it's almost impossible to supervise your kids well enough to protect them from harm.”
Haugen said that she and her husband strictly supervised Abigail after buying her water beads for her 6th birthday.
They originally said no when Abigail asked for the beads, but when they looked into it, they read that the beads were non-toxic, eco-friendly and biodegradable, Haugen said. The beads did pose a choking hazard, but were presented as relatively safe.
“We purchased them online and they came in a package that had no warning on it whatsoever, not even a choking hazard warning,” Haugen said.
Water beads were developed in the 1950s and 1960s for agricultural use, to help store water for plants and crops. The beads would soak up water from rain and irrigation, and then slowly release it into the soil.
The water beads soon were adopted by flower shops as a means of keeping household plants hydrated. Companies also began experimenting with the absorbent gel in consumer goods like diapers and feminine products.
Water beads became a fad for kids thanks to a toy executive named Ron Brawer, who saw the beads in a florist's stall in London more than a decade ago, according to Consumer Reports.
“He first noticed them being used for flowers and houseplants, and he saw his little kids playing with them and they were mesmerized,” Wallace said. “And he more or less said, you know, these could make a good toy.”
Thus came Orbeez, the first water bead toy, which hit the market in 2010.
Brawer said to Consumer Reports that he asked a lab to analyze what would happen if the beads were ingested, and was told that the beads would safely pass through the body without causing any harm.
In fact, Brawer said he often ate a couple of Orbeez whenever safety questions would come up, estimating he has ingested at least 100 with no ill effects.
Water bead toys made an initial splash, faded in popularity, and then rebounded in 2017, Cowles said.
“That was when social media influencers and others started to market them as sensory products,” Cowles said. “Toddlers can put their hands in a bowl or box of these and squish them around.”
The Haugens first realized something was wrong with Kipley when a rash developed around her mouth. She then started waking in the middle of the night, so much so that they started caring for the girls in shifts.
They didn't suspect Abigail's water beads because the girls had separate play areas, Haugen said.
“The biggest issue is parents don't even know that that's what is causing their child's symptoms, so they can't really tell the doctor,” Cowles said. “ERs really have to start asking when they see this kind of intestinal problem, did they know if they had water beads in their house?”
Supervision isn't enough
“We just don't think there's a safe way to have these marketed to children,” Cowles added. “Supervision doesn't help. You're supervising your child playing with them, but it's like trying to tame glitter.”
There are mandatory toy standards that should govern water beads, Wallace said. The problem is that by calling water beads a “sensory aid,” some manufacturers are flouting that standard.
The Toy Association, an industry group, said that consumers should follow age recommendations on product packaging and that when sold as toys, water beads are subject to safety standards while other non-toy uses are not, Consumer Reports said.
“Unfortunately, in our product safety system, in the regulatory system that we have here in the U.S., even for toys and even for children's products that aren't subject to a mandatory standard, people generally don't have to show that it's safe before it's put on the market,” Wallace said. “That's something that a lot of people don't know.”
Beyond the choking hazard, Haugen and others fear some of the beads contain toxic chemicals.
Following her surgery, Kipley never seemed the same.
“She wasn't answering to her name anymore, consistently,” Haugen said. “She was uncoordinated. She was just not herself.”
Months later, a developmental pediatrician evaluated Kipley and diagnosed her as having toxic brain encephalopathy, expressive and receptive language delay, gait abnormality, and a lack of muscle strength and coordination, Haugen said.
The doctor chalked the toxic encephalopathy up to poisoning by acrylamide monomer poisoning, Haugen said. Abigail's water beads were made of polyacrylamide, a non-toxic substance that is created from polymerizing acrylamide, a potent neurotoxin.
Haugen went on to form That Water Bead Lady, a nonprofit group aimed at spreading the word about the hazards of water beads.
Haugen said she is glad that a recall has been issued against one water bead product, but she is frustrated that more action hasn't yet been taken.
“I am glad that parents will have the information now to know that there is essentially a ticking time bomb in their home,” Haugen said. “At the same time, more needs to be done.”
Wallace noted that with the recall, the CPSC also issued a statement urging parents and caregivers to “remove these products from any environment with small children.” The statement urged child care centers, camps and schools to avoid water beads entirely.
“It's important for everybody to recognize that you now also have the federal regulator in charge of household product safety saying that if you have young kids in the house, you should avoid these,” Wallace said. “If you are a teacher or a camp counselor or you run a daycare, you should be avoiding them.”
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has more about water beads.
SOURCES: Nancy Cowles, executive director, Kids In Danger; William Wallace, associate director, safety policy, Consumer Reports; Ashley Haugen, San Antonio, Texas, founder, That Water Bead Lady; Consumer Reports, Sept. 21, 2023