Small toy balls and beads that expand in water could be safety hazards

Posted at 7:22 PM, Apr 08, 2013
and last updated 2013-04-08 19:22:38-04

They’re colorful and alluring, but Consumer Reports says there’s a potential safety hazard with popular small toy balls and beads that expand dramatically in water. There are many of those super-absorbent polymer balls on the market, although one was recalled late last year—Dunecraft Water Balz.

It was recalled after an 8-month-old swallowed one. She was rushed to the hospital, where doctors couldn’t see anything on the X-ray. But in surgery they removed a ball almost 1 1/2 inches in diameter from her small intestine. Her pediatric surgeon said, “If nothing had been done, the intestines would have perforated, the child would have had significant infection and sepsis, and could have possibly died from it.”

Consumer Reports examined the recalled Dunecraft Water Balz fresh out of its package. And then the identical ball that soaked in water for two days. Consumer Reports also looked at tiny polymer beads that are still on the market, including Orbeez. Though their full size is much smaller than the banned Water Balz, Consumer Reports says that they also pose a safety hazard for small children. The products look a lot like candy or gum, but they can expand enough within a few hours to block the intestine or airway of a small child.

The Orbeez beads do carry warnings. On the front the package says, “Choking hazard … not for children under three years.” On the back it says, “Not suitable for children under the age of five.” Meanwhile Orbeez, whose beads are smaller than others on the market, says its tests show the toy is “safe for the children for whom it is intended.” Orbeez says the balls should pass through their digestive tract. However, Consumer Reports points out the company did not address the choking hazard or the potential of a blocked airway, which is a risk for all children.

Although additional injuries have not yet been documented in the U.S., several have been reported in other countries, including one fatality. All types of super-absorbent polymer balls have been banned in Italy and Malaysia. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says it regards “the incident involving the 8-month-old girl to be very serious, and as a result CPSC staff are taking a broader look at this product class.”

The balls are found not only in toys but are also sold widely as decorations. Consumer Reports strongly urges that parents and caregivers keep those products out of the reach of small children.