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Safety & Prevention

Water Beads: Harmful if Swallowed, Put in Ears

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Water-absorbing gel beads sold as sensory toys and used in vases and gardens are a growing danger for young children.

What are water beads?

Made of superabsorbent polymer chemicals, water beads are also known as jelly beads, hydro orbs, crystal soil and gel beads. They are also called sensory beads, used as play tools for children with autism and other developmental conditions.

When the tiny, hard plastic balls are placed in water, they can grow up to 1,500 times their original size. The clear, colorful beads can then be dried out and reused.

Why water beads can be dangerous for young children

The problem is that because water beads look like candy, young children may be tempted to swallow them. Kids also have put the beads in their ears and even inhaled them.

Water beads can absorb body fluids and continue to grow once inside the body, causing blockages and life-threatening damage. They may not be visible on X-rays. The beads are also a choking hazard, especially in children younger than 3 years.

Although water beads are labeled as "non-toxic," federal safety officials also warn about the chemical acrylamide used to make some water beads. Amounts of acrylamide found in some products exceeded the current U.S. safety standard.

Between 2016 and 2022, an estimated 7,800 children were treated in emergency departments after ingesting water beads. At least one child, a 10-month-old girl, died.

Signs your child may have swallowed water beads

  • Refusing to eat

  • Lethargy

  • Drooling

  • Vomiting

  • Wheezing

  • Complaints that something is stuck in the throat or chest

  • Abdominal pain

  • Constipation

  • Abdominal swelling and soreness

If you suspect your child swallowed water beads or put them into their ears, seek treatment right away. You can also contact Poison Help at 1-800-222-1222 or get online help.

Should water beads for children be banned?

Pediatricians are concerned about children being harmed by water beads. That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics supports the proposed Ban Water Beads Act.

If passed by U.S. lawmakers, the law would direct the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to enforce a ban on all water beads marketed for children's use. This would include those sold as toys, or as educational or art products or materials.

In the meantime, if you have young children, it is safest not to not have water beads in your home.

Have some water beads been recalled?

The CPSC has recalled many brands of water-absorbing balls, beads and toys shaped like fruit and animals. One recall was issued in 2023 after a baby died and another was seriously injured from swallowing water beads in an activity kit.

The CPSC continues to receive reports of children being injured after ingesting water beads. Many cases involve young children under 3 years old swallowing water beads given to their older siblings.

In two CPSC reports, children were treated for ear infections when doctors couldn't spot clear beads in their ears during an exam. The delay in finding the beads allowed them to grow until the kids, who were 5 and 7 years old, needed surgery. Both have ear drum damage, and one hearing loss. Another child, a 6-month-old, needed surgery after swallowing a water bead; the baby later died from an infection.

More information

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American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention (Copyright © 2024)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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