Parents are being warned of the risks posed to children by water beads, which have been increasingly marketed as toys and learning aids for autistic children.
The water-absorbing beads made from superabsorbent polymer can swell to 400 times their original size when immersed, causing a foreign body risk that can obstruct the gastrointestinal tract.
In a short report published online by the Medical Journal of Australia, senior poisons specialist Dr Rose Cairns, of the NSW Poisons Information Centre at Westmead Children's Hospital, and her colleagues identified a rapid increase in incidents in recent years involving the ingestion of water-absorbing beads.
The authors examined cases documented by the New South Wales Poisons Information Centre (NSWPIC) in children aged 0-14 years between January 2004 and June 2016. Since 2004, 129 incidents involving the beads have been reported to NSWPIC, 112 (87%) since 2013.
There have been reports of serious bowel obstruction in children who have swallowed water beads. Serious complications have also been documented, including the death of a 6-month-old child overseas. In this case, the baby developed sepsis from an anastomotic leak that occurred after the surgical removal of a water bead obstructing the jejunum.
While the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has both urged companies not to market water beads as toys and alerted consumers to their risks, water beads promoted as "fairy eggs", "jelly beads", and "hydro orbs", continue to fill toy shop shelves.
The authors wrote that clinicians should be aware of the risks associated with these products, and that early hospital referral of people who have swallowed the beads should be considered. "Any patient who has ingested a water bead and has gastrointestinal symptoms should be assessed for potential obstruction," they wrote.
Article: Dangerous toys: the expanding problem of water-absorbing beads, Rose Cairns, Jared A Brown, Nicholas A Buckley, Medical Journal of Australia, doi: 10.5694/mja16.00936, published online 28 November 2016.