This Toy Is Shockingly Dangerous And Available Everywhere

Safety advocates and parents of affected children are sounding the alarm about the dangers of a popular toy.
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Earlier this week, I took my 10-year-old daughter to a certain ubiquitous coffee chain. Her eyes were drawn immediately to the new summer drink on the menu, which she convinced me to purchase, for $6. What we received was basically a cup of blue Kool-Aid dressed up with some bright red floating orbs and an oversized straw to slurp them into. My daughter broke the little balls open with her teeth, pink liquid splashing.

“It’s really OK to eat these?” she asked.

I reassured her that it was fine, that these were the same as the ones she’d had before in bubble tea. These boba or tapioca beads are made from tapioca flour, a starch. They’re a digestible food product.

They’re also indistinguishable from another kind of water-filled sphere. But this one is not at all digestible and, in fact, is quite dangerous. Known as water beads, these orbs are made from super-absorbent polymers that expand dramatically when soaked in water. Some of them can grow to the size of a golf ball.

These polymers are also used in disposable diapers, and the beads were actually first marketed for horticultural purposes. They provide a vehicle to keep plants hydrated for days. But for the past decade or so, they have also been marketed as a “sensory toy” for children and people with developmental disabilities. In their wet, expanded form, they’re squishy and slippery and fun to play with. You may also see them sold as “gel blasters” for toy guns.

When my daughter was 2, she delightedly shoved her hands into a bucket of these at a play group. I kept my eyes on her for that hour, of course, and didn’t see her put any in her mouth. But neither did most of the parents whose children have been seriously injured or even lost their lives from ingesting water beads. The fact that my child is here next to me, sipping overpriced beverages, is pure luck.

Water beads have been responsible for an estimated 7,800 emergency room visits from 2016 to 2022, according to Consumer Reports. Yet a quick search on Amazon reveals dozens of water bead products in a range of sizes and colors, most priced under $10. The phrase “non-toxic” is used to market many of them.

A dedicated group of parents and consumer advocates, however, are determined to let everyone know that water beads are potentially lethal and to ban their sale in the U.S.

Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have introduced a bill to ban the sale of water beads “designed, intended, or marketed as a toy, educational material, art material or sensory tool for children.”

The Unique Dangers Of Water Beads

Before Ashley Haugen bought her 6-year-old a package of water beads to play with, she did her research. What she learned online from manufacturers was that the beads posed a choking hazard for young children, so she and her husband were careful to keep them away from their 10-month old baby. They discarded the used beads when their older daughter was done playing with them and stored the unused dry beads out of the baby’s reach.

In spite of taking every reasonable precaution, however, Haugen’s baby, Kipley, got a hold of some of the beads and ingested them, although this was discovered only during an exploratory surgery after weeks of confusing symptoms.

Even after the surgeon removed the water beads from Kipley’s intestines, she continued to exhibit rashes and developmental delays. Only after months of advocacy did Haugen and her husband learn that the water beads Kipley ingested did, in fact, contain a toxic substance, one that left Kipley with numerous neurological issues, including a language delay and muscle weakness.

Kipley’s heartbreaking story highlights all of the major dangers that water beads can pose when ingested.

“What we have found is that a water bead can grow from the size of a rice kernel to the size of a golf ball in a pretty short period of time,” Pamela Springs, director of communications at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, told HuffPost.

Because symptoms may take some time to develop, it can be hard for doctors to piece together what is going on. “Part of the challenge is that they don’t always show up on X-rays or MRIs,” Springs said.

“A child could swallow one and start to have issues ... but you go to an emergency room and they aren’t able to immediately diagnose the problem.” As in Kipley’s case, a serious condition such as a blockage of the digestive track may only be identified with a surgical procedure.

Though the beads aren’t always visible on an X-ray, sometimes they are so numerous that they create an alarming visual. Springs has seen an image revealing a thousand swollen beads inside a baby’s digestive tract. “What you see are these little translucent spheres along the torso of the child. These are obstructions.”

Then there is the question of toxicity, or supposed non-toxicity. Despite claims that water beads are “non-toxic,” some brands have been found to contain acrylamide, a known carcinogen. It also seems to be responsible for the damage to Kipley’s brain.

“We have recalled two water bead brands within the past six weeks or so because they contained high levels of acrylamide,” Springs said.

“The hazard goes beyond just the ingestion and the growth and the potential blockage. There could be other issues as well,” she said.

There are also reports of children who have inhaled water beads into their lungs or gotten them stuck in their ears or nose, causing damage to those body parts, including “ear infections from water beads in the ears causing ear drum damage and hearing loss,” Dr. Alexis Monique Javier at Children’s Memorial Hermann in Houston told HuffPost.

What Parents Need To Know

Though they may resemble bubble tea beads or jelly beans when enlarged, dried water beads look almost identical to the kind of rainbow sprinkles you might see on a cookie. Either way, they could easily appear to a child to be candy, and, when dry, they are tiny enough to get lodged in carpet threads or baseboards.

“They bounce, roll, scatter, and hide under furniture and appliances, where they can remain undetected for weeks, months, or even years,” Haugen told HuffPost.

For these reasons as well as the substantial health risks they pose, Springs said the CPSC recommends that “the best way for a parent to protect their kids, their adults with developmental disabilities, is not to have them in the home.”

“Italy and Malaysia have banned water beads from being sold as toys,” Gabe Knight, a policy analyst at Consumer Reports, told HuffPost. In addition to the CPSC warning here in the U.S., “governmental agencies in Canada, Ireland and New Zealand have issued warnings to parents about their risks,” Knight said.

The CPSC has recalled a number of individual water bead products. However, it does not have the ability to ban an entire class of product. “We can only take action against a specific product of a specific brand,” Springs said.

“The fastest way for us to address something this serious is with a congressional mandate,” she said.

The bill before the Senate and a similar bill under consideration in the House offer an opportunity to do just that.

The Senate bill is named “Esther’s Law” in honor of a 10-month-old baby from Wisconsin, Esther Jo Bethard, who died in July 2023 after ingesting water beads.

“Esther’s Law will save lives and prevent injuries by ensuring caregivers are properly warned about the risks water bead-containing products pose to children and prevent the beads from being inappropriately marketed and sold as toys,” Haugen said.

“Parents know the drill — we meticulously supervise, we childproof, we do everything in our power to keep our children safe. Yet, despite our best efforts, sometimes accidents happen. And in those moments, how a product is made and what it’s made of can make the critical difference between a minor mishap and a major tragedy,” Haugen said.

“Signs that a child may have swallowed water beads are refusing to eat, lethargy, drooling, vomiting, wheezing, stating that something is stuck in their throat or chest, abdominal pain, constipation, abdominal swelling or soreness,” Javier said.

If you believe that your child may have ingested a water bead, Javier recommends that parents “seek treatment right away and go to their nearest clinic, urgent care or emergency room/department.”

In addition, she said, you should contact the National Poison Help Line at 1-800-222-1222.

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