When Ashley Haugen’s baby woke up one evening projectile vomiting, she rushed her 10-month-old to the emergency room. Doctors couldn’t understand what made Kipley so sick: All the tests and scans came back as inconclusive, so as a last resort, they recommended surgery.
Afterward, the doctor showed the family an image of what he found lodged in the girl’s intestines.
“We recognized it immediately as a birthday gift,” Haugen, 32, of San Antonio, Texas, tells TODAY.com.
That gift was water beads, small gel-filled balls used as sensory toys, for décor or in plants or gardens. When wet, they expand. The family purchased the water beads for their 6-year-old daughter, Abigail, and only allowed her to use them under adult supervision. Somehow Kipley got her hands on some and ate them.
A gift turned into tragedy
When Abigail first asked for water beads after seeing influencers on YouTube play with them, her parents said no, precisely because the colorful, gel-filled beads looked like something a toddler would try to eat. Then Haugen researched them, and felt reassured that they were used as sensory toys in clinics and schools, and most claimed they were non-toxic. In 2017, she finally agreed to purchase them for Abigail with some strict rules, including adult supervision at all times.
TODAY.com reached out to one of the most popular manufacturers of water beads, but did not hear back.
The product was marked as a choking hazard, and had the regular warning of “keep away from small children,” Haugen says. “We explained (it) to Abigail and we set the girls up. They had separate play areas. So, we thought we were safe.”
When doctors found the water beads nestled in Kipley’s small intestine, Haugen said he told her they tried to remove them and some broke apart.
“The surgeon said that his tools went straight through the material, and he couldn’t remove it that way,” Haugen recalls. “We ended up having to open her all the way up to be able to get it out, and it was lots of pieces of the waterproof material.”
Kipley recovered in the hospital for about a week. After returning home, her mom says, she started behaving differently.
“Over the course of a couple weeks, it became clear that something was wrong with her,” Haugen says. “She wasn’t answering to her name anymore. She wasn’t eating her favorite foods. She wasn’t sleeping well. She lost all the speech that she had.”
Haugen took Kipley to a pediatrician who, she says, “completely dismissed us.”
“We then later had to go on the search to find a pediatrician who actually had an understanding of what this could be,” Haugen says.
In October 2017, a developmental pediatrician diagnosed Kipley with toxic brain encephalopathy caused by acrylamide monomer poisoning.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylamides impact the reproductive and nervous system, mostly, causing “muscle weakness, numbness in hands and feet, sweating, unsteadiness, and clumsiness.”
“There aren’t a lot of papers describing the effects of acrylamide monomer exposure in kids,” Dr. Elizabeth Friedman, the medical director of environmental Health at Children’s Mercy in Kansas City and co-director of the Mid-America Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit, tells TODAY.com. “We know that acrylamide is a poison. And there’s not a lot of research and information about what that looks like.”
Haugen later learned the gels that fill the water beads can contain small amounts of acrylamides. Friedman, who is not involved with Kipley’s care, says there’s evidence that the chemical can linger.
“Acrylamide is the neurotoxin and when it’s been polymerized, it’s supposed to be neutralized. But from what I’ve read … it’s possible for some of the acrylamide monomer to remain in the polymer,” Friedman says. “If it’s at a high enough dose, it is a poison.”
Children’s hospitals know about water beads
Staff at children’s hospitals are familiar with water beads.
“They’re basically made of a really absorbent, like a super absorbent polymer. So, they’re designed to absorb liquids and expand significantly in size,” Kelley Miller, injury prevention coordinator at Helen Devos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, tells TODAY.com “Little ones that start the size of a BB can expand to the size of a marble, and then they make some even bigger than that.”
She says they’re used as sensory tools, for arts and crafts and in gardening and plants.
“They can be marketed as non-toxic items, but they’re designed for older children,” she says. “They can be a lot of fun for sensory because they kind of have a squishy feel, and they are kind of fun to stick your hands in and play around with because they’re usually brightly colored and translucent.”
That fun appearance also makes them look like something a child might want to eat.
“They look all shiny and very much looks like candy,” she says. “It’s really easy for littler people to get their hands on them and either ingest them, put them in their nose, in their ears, in all the places that young children end up doing with smaller items.”
If children swallow them, they become dangerous because they grow bigger and get lodged in the body.
“The biggest hazard with them is that when they’re ingested, they expand,” Miller says. “As they’re moving through a child’s body, they’re just continually getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And so, as it’s moving through the stomach and the digestive system … they very likely will get big enough they’re going to get stuck.”
She said they normally get stuck in the intestines and surgery is required to remove them.
“There’s been cases where there has been necrosis or death of the intestines so that’s a whole other issue in itself,” Miller says. “If you have death of your intestine from lack of blood flow or anything like that, then that leaves you open for an infection, or it collects through the intestines then you’ve got intestinal fluids coming into your body and that’s obviously not a good thing.”
Too often parents don’t see that their child ate one, and don’t understand why their child is so sick. Also, Miller says, because of the translucent gel consistency, imaging often cannot detect the beads.
“Sometimes it’s hard to see them on an x-ray,” Miller says. “It can be really tricky to identify.”
Miller says parents should call poison control and visit an emergency room if they notice their child:
- Gagging, coughing or drooling
- Struggling to swallow
- Breathing faster or harder
- Experiencing belly pain and discomfort
“These are all signs that something’s wrong, especially if you know there’s water bead in your house or if there’s a situation where they may have ingested one,” Miller says. “The quicker the problem is identified, the easier it may be to take care of the problem before it causes more significant damage.”
Miller urges parents to keep children away from water beads.
“Prevention is always the best method — not having them in the house when you have small children,” she says.
Parents warn about water beads
In December 2022, Haugen testified before the U.S. Consumer Protect Safety Commission (CPSC), urging them to ban the marketing of water beads for children and to include clearer labeling for the products if used as gardening or craft supplies.
“My hope is that they act swiftly and that we’re able to work together to come up with a solution, because this should never happen to another child,” Haugen says. “I do not think they should be marketed to children.”
Another family filed a lawsuit in November against Target and two companies that manufacture water beads, claiming that their daughter ingested them and was hospitalized.
Target pulled the product from its shelves. Target told TODAY.com it cannot comment on “pending litigation,” and shared its statement regarding water beads:
“We are treating this situation very seriously and send our heartfelt sympathy to this family. Safety is Target’s top priority, and we require our vendors to comply with all product safety standards, as well as all state, federal and local laws. We have removed this product from stores and Target.com while we address these concerns with the vendor.”
After Kipley’s accident, Haugen started That Water Bead Lady, a resource site about water beads. She reported Kipley’s injury in 2017 to the CPSC, she says, and later shared “an extensive medical literature review of water beads” with the regulatory agency. Now, she helps other parents report water bead accidents. For example, she helps them navigate the system and use the terms that she knows government officials use to describe things.
“Our hopes is that we can educate people as to how to get that terminology and how to talk and work with their clinicians so their clinicians can help them file reports,” she says.
Haugen also encourages people to contact elected officials about water beads and children.
Kipley is now 6 and has gone through a lot of occupational, physical and talk therapy, and attends school with a personalized education plan called an IEP.
“She’s got challenges. This changed the trajectory of her life,” Haugen says. “She is a force to be reckoned with. She has a huge heart, and she is so kind and caring.”
Kipley loves drawing, dancing and playing at the park. The family recently adopted a kitten and has two dogs, and she loves them. Haugen met with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in January to share information about water beads, and the organization updated its website afterwards.
The AAP’s website notes that water beads are choking hazards and shares the symptoms to look for that might indicate a child swallowed one without a parent’s notice. It also says: “Recently, while the beads are labeled as 'non-toxic,' concerns also been raised about the safety of the chemical acrylamide used to make them.”
“There really needs to be very clear, concise language with regards to warning people about the dangers of these beads,” Haugen says. “They can actually hurt, and poison children, and parents need to be aware of that.”