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Are colorful round balls sold as sensory toys for kids potentially a health hazard?
Amid ongoing warnings from parents and physicians, MedPage Today asked Neha Patel, MD, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Cohen Children’s Medical Center at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York, to weigh in on the safety of water beads.
Made of superabsorbent polymer chemicals, water beads expand and become squishy when placed in water. In addition to their use as sensory toys — often used for children with autism and developmental disorders — the small orbs can also be found as decor in gardens and vases.
But what are the possible risks?
“A lot of these beads are very common to find,” Patel told MedPage Today. “And they look so good.”
When kids see “colorful, spongy, and fun-to-touch objects,” they’re likely to feel them, and even put them in their mouths, Patel said. As kids investigate, some will swallow them.
Of particular concern is the beads’ ability to expand, particularly after contact with fluids in the body, she said.
For instance, if a child swallows something small, there may not be terrible concern that it won’t pass, she explained. However, as these beads move through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, they can absorb water and double or triple in size.
“They can actually get stuck in the bowels and cause an obstruction,” Patel said.
Water beads can also expand — and thereby be more difficult to remove — if they become lodged in a child’s ears or nose, she said. This can lead to pressure-related injuries to the ear or bleeding with removal.
There’s also the risk of a water bead getting stuck in a child’s airway — a life-threatening emergency, she noted.
Indeed, there are numerous reports of water bead-related injuries in young kids that can be found in a search of the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s website. A representative from the agency recently told Fox News Digital that it is “looking into” an incident involving the “tragic death” of a 10-month-old girl after she reportedly swallowed a water bead.
Parents continue to speak out regarding the potential hazards of the beads. As reported by Parade, a mom known as That Water Bead Lady on social media has become an advocate on the dangers of water beads, “hoping that her family’s personal story will help protect others.”
“The problem is that because water beads look like candy, young children may be tempted to swallow them,” according to a post from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “Kids also have put them in their ears, and even inhaled them. The beads can continue to grow once inside the body, causing blockages and life-threatening damage. And the beads may not be visible on x-rays.”
Being radiolucent, water beads are likely to evade detection via x-ray. “They can be missed unless there is a very high degree of suspicion,” Patel said.
The AAP post also states that “while the beads are labeled as ‘non-toxic,’ concerns [have] also been raised about the safety of the chemical acrylamide used to make them.”
For Patel, awareness is key. Any time there is concern for foreign body ingestion, it warrants a trip to the emergency department, she said.
Symptoms in children may include sudden-onset change in behavior, refusal to eat, and noisy breathing and wheezing, she added. However, many signs or symptoms, such as abdominal pain, vomiting, irritability and fever, “can also happen with GI bugs,” making diagnosis a challenge.
Overall, when it comes to dangers from foreign body ingestion, other culprits may be top of mind.
“Button batteries, there’s a lot more awareness about those,” Patel said.
Though water beads may be biodegradable, it’s important to “make sure that, if parents do encounter them, dispose of them in the trash,” Patel added. “Don’t leave them around.”
Jennifer Henderson joined MedPage Today as an enterprise and investigative writer in Jan. 2021. She has covered the healthcare industry in NYC, life sciences and the business of law, among other areas.
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