When her healthy, happy nine-month-old baby couldn't stop vomiting, US mum Janet McDonald knew something was wrong.
In a Facebook post, Ms McDonald shares the harrowing moment she discovered her little boy had ingested water beads at daycare - and had fallen seriously ill.
"Three days ago, my sweet nine month boy ate water beads, which are colourful polymer beads that swell in water," she writes.
"This is a recipe for disaster if they are swallowed. The container says non-toxic, but they are non-toxic the same way a meat cleaver is non-toxic. They do NOT dissolve in the digestive tract and instead swell to block to the passage. This hazard is not marked on the bottle."
What followed was x-rays, IV fluids, more vomiting and consults with five surgeons and two anesthetists.
"At 9 am the next day, they carried my poor sweet baby away to surgery. It was one of the worst feelings I've ever had in my life."
Exhausted after very little sleep and covered in her baby's vomit, the mum-of-three continues, "after being strong for so long, I wept and wept."
"The surgery was nearly two hours to remove beads that had swollen and one had blocked his pyloric valve on the way out of the stomach," Ms McDonald writes. "At one point the surgeons had his entire digestive tract out of his body and ran their fingers down the length to make sure all the pieces were out."
And it's something she'll never forget.
"I saw the lead surgeon's picture and I will never lose that image in my mind."
So how did her nine-month-old ingest the dangerous beads?
According to Ms McDonald the beads were out of reach "in a pretty, colourful, display at day care".
"But the display of them had fallen and the beads scattered," she explains. "It was an accident. Even though this happened to my nine-month-old, I still catch my four-year-old putting random stuff in his mouth and this could have happened to him."
She's now issuing a warning to others who use the beads.
"I know OTs, teachers, and parents like to use water beads as sensory toys, because they are colourful, squishy "non-toxic" fun," she writes. But the consequences of swallowing them can be dire. Get the beads out of your house if you have small kids around. If you see these at your day care centers, demand they be removed for any age, even if they are out of reach. Kids are fast."
In 2016 Australian doctors warned parents that the beads, which have been marketed as kids' toys, pose a serious hazard to children.
A report released by Medical Journal of Australia, cautioned that the beads – which can swell to 400 times their original size when placed in water – present a "unique foreign body challenge," for this very reason. When ingested, the beads can obstruct the intestine, causing vomiting, severe pain and dehydration.
Previously used mainly for decorative purposes, the beads began being marketed as toys, (fairy eggs, dragon eggs,) and as sensory learning tools for children on the autism spectrum.
The authors noted that while the absorbent polymer the beads are made of is not poisonous, they can result in other health complications – including death. In 2012, a six-month-old baby died from septicaemia, following surgery to remove a water bead obstructing part of his small intestine. The bead had been ingested one month prior.
"Any patient who has ingested a water bead and has gastrointestinal symptoms should be assessed for potential obstruction," the authors wrote.
In March 2015, the ACCC also issued a warning about water beads after several children ingested the product, requiring hospital treatment to have them removed.
"We urge businesses who are supplying these products as toys to immediately stop," said ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard at the time "The ACCC will work with industry to address safety concerns."
The ACCC also provided the following recommendations:
- Stop using expanding water balls as toys or playthings immediately.
- Keep expanding water balls out of reach of children – make sure these products are well out of sight and out of reach of children.
- Keep any items, including decorative pieces like vases that contain expanding water balls well out of reach of children.
- If consumers suspect their child has swallowed these water balls, they should seek medical attention immediately.
A CHOICE video, released following the recommendations, demonstrates just how quickly the beads expand when placed in water – and how dangerous they can be if swallowed.