News Water beads can cause fatal blockages if ingested, but popular kids’ toy still for sale
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Water beads can cause fatal blockages if ingested, but popular kids’ toy still for sale

The arrow indicates a bowel obstruction in a six-month-old Pakistani child who died in 2012 after ingesting a gel ball. Photo: Bilal Mirza
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A popular plastic toy that can block a child’s intestines remains on sale across Australia despite repeated warnings from the national regulator and health authorities.

Water beads are brightly coloured balls that expand when soaked in water.

The polymer spheres, some as small as a grain of sand, expand to more than 100 times their original size when wet.

The danger of the tiny balls – which are often sold in packets of thousands – has been repeatedly raised by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

Warnings and recalls

As far back as 2015, the ACCC warned that while the products were marketed to children above the age of five, their bright colours were attractive to younger children.

Poison experts and the national regulator have warned that water beads are particularly dangerous for very young children. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“Once ingested, they can expand inside a child’s body and cause intestinal obstruction, vomiting, severe discomfort, and dehydration, and may need to be surgically removed,” the watchdog wrote six years ago.

“They also pose a choking hazard — if this happens, please call triple zero and seek urgent medical attention.”

The ACCC released two voluntary recalls for two specific water bead products in late 2018 and early 2019, but the products remain for sale.

The New South Wales Poisons Centre released its own data in 2016, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, that listed 129 reports of children swallowing water beads in the preceding 12 years.

“Ten children had symptoms suggesting possible obstruction [vomiting, abdominal pain, constipation] that developed between six hours and five days after ingestion,” it said.

The Queensland Poisons Information Centre recorded 71 calls of children ingesting the balls since 2018.

The ACCC has issued two voluntary recalls of water beads. Photo: Australian Competition and Consumer Commission

Potentially ‘fatal outcome’

NSW Poisons Information Centre senior specialist Genevieve Adamo said while up-to-date data was not available from NSW Health, approximately one in five children would go into hospital for care once their parents raised the alarm.

She said larger varieties of water beads, which could expand to 6 centimetres in size, were the most dangerous.

“The concern is a blockage and damage to the system, and if that’s not addressed promptly there are potentially fatal outcomes that have been seen overseas,” Ms Adamo said.

“It takes many hours for them to expand and they pass through the system as they’re expanding, and will expand often in the small bowel, which can cause a blockage.”

If that happened, the child would require life-saving emergency surgery.

A six-month-old boy in Pakistan swallowed a brightly coloured “gel ball” in 2012, which caused a bowel obstruction.

He then suffered a “burst abdomen” after surgical removal, developed septicemia and died two days after a second operation.

Online marketplaces are selling packets containing more than 100,000 water beads.

Retailers say beads safe for some

An ACCC spokesperson said it was up to suppliers or consumers to report unsafe products.

While Australian sellers generally had smaller quantities on the shelves, online marketplaces were selling bags of 20,000 beads for less than $25.

The ABC approached Big W, Target and Kmart in relation to the safety of the products, but only Big W replied.

“This range of products has been tested and meets all relevant requirements of the Australian and New Zealand safety standards for toys, including those specific to expandable materials,” a spokeswoman said.

“The products also feature age-appropriate recommendations for children under five years old, which we would always encourage our customers to follow.”

Non-toxic, but still harmful

Ms Adamo urged parents not to have water beads in the house, particularly if they had children younger than five.

“I would certainly not be recommending them for use as a sensory aid, and definitely not in children with developmental issues because they are much more likely to be putting things in their mouth,” she said.

Ms Adamo said some parents were lulled into a false belief the water beads were safe because they were marketed as non-toxic.

“Non-toxic does not mean non-harmful, OK?” she said.

“People don’t understand the risks associated with them, and the potential for what can happen if they’re ingested before they’re expanded, or if it’s a large quantity that is ingested.”

-ABC