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Moms have been raising alarms about water bead dangers. Now there's a new warning about them

Water beads are popular toys that are colorful, squishy, shiny … and well known in emergency departments.
Water beads in a bowl.
Water beads are popular and lots of fun to play with, but some parents and experts warn they pose a hazard for young children who may swallow them.Yulia Naumenko / Getty Images

There's a new warning about water beads. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is warning parents about two water beads brands that contain dangerous levels of acrylamide, a chemical linked to cancer.

It's the first time the government agency has warned about water beads being toxic, a major development for parents who have been sounding the alarm.

Water beads are small gel-filled balls used as sensory toys, for décor or in plants or gardens. When wet, they expand. They're colorful and squishy, and often irresistible to toddlers who swallow them.

"Water beads can harm your child in multiple ways," CPSC Commissioner Rich Trumka Jr. said, "through expanding and blocking intestinal pathways and also through leeching toxic chemicals."

"To make matters worse," Trumka continued, "some water bead products are labeled 'nontoxic,' but that statement should not be taken at face value." 

The agency encourages people to toss out water beads from the companies Jangostor and Tuladuo, "due to acrylamide levels that present the risk of toxicity," a statement from the CPSC noted.

"Acrylamide is a known carcinogen. The large water beads in CPSC’s warnings contain levels of acrylamide in violation of the Federal Hazardous Substances Act," the CPSC's statement said.

Neither company agreed to issue a recall, CPSC said.

Last year, the CPSC and Buffalo Games recalled more than 50,000 "Chuckle & Roar Ultimate Water Beads Activity Kits," in September 2023. This came after a report of injury to a 9-month old and the death of a 10-month old.

“Consumers should immediately stop using and take away the recalled water beads from children,” the CPSC press release said. “The water beads pose a risk of serious injury or death if ingested. When ingested, the beads grow in size, which can cause intestinal obstruction.”

Hannah Rief, Water bead
When Letty Rief began vomiting every 30 minutes, her mom Hannah Rief worried she accidentally ate something. They later learned the 14-month-old ingested a small water bead, which grew in her intestine and blocked it.Courtesy Hannah Rief

CPSC noted that from 2018 to 2022, emergency room doctors in the United States treated about 7,000 water bead-related injuries.

Reaction to the water bead recall

Ashley Haugen started a resource website called That Water Bead Lady after her daughter Kipley was injured by water beads. Since then, she has been trying to make people more aware of their dangers. The recall announcement last year provided her with some consolation, she says, that “more children at being protected."

“I’m relieved that parents will now know about the dangers that this product poses and that all water beads pose to children,” Haugen, tells TODAY.com. “But I feel the recall should have come earlier.”

She hopes for more: “We are past due for more action to be taken.”

Haugen praises the families who share their stories of how water beads harmed their children because, she says, they “have made a huge difference” in raising awareness.

“It puts faces and names to an injury,” Haugen says. “People need to understand that what happened to our families can happen to anybody. It can happen to their kids, their pets or their grandkids.” 

More information on water bead recall

People with questions or who want to learn more about the water bead recall from the companies Jangostor and Tuladuo due to toxicity risk can click here.

For more information about the dangers of water beads, and links to past recalls, see this page about water beads on the CPSC website.

Are water beads dangerous?

Hannah Rief knows the dangers of water beads all too well. When her daugther Letty Rief started vomiting one day in June of 2023, Rief worried that she accidentally gave her 14-month-old daughter expired food. As the day continued, Rief grew even more concerned when Letty couldn’t stop throwing up.

“I thought ‘Holy cow, is this a stomach bug? Did she get food poisoning,’” Rief, 31, of Hastings, Iowa, tells TODAY.com. “I thought ... we’re going to get some rest and see how she does over the evening.” 

Letty did not improve. She began vomiting every 30 minutes and Rief took her to the hospital. Doctors eventually told the family what caused Letty to be so ill — she had accidentally ingested a water bead the size of an ice cream sprinkle and it grew, creating an intestinal blockage. Now Rief is joining the chorus of parents warning about the dangers of the popular toy.

“Water beads are everywhere and they’re colorful and they look like candy,” Rief says. “I want this to get out to where everybody’s aware of the dangers.” 

A few years ago, Rief’s older daughter received some water beads as a gift. After she wet them, they expanded in size, and she accidentally spilled them on the floor. Rief waited until the beads dried up and shrank, then vacuumed the carpet several times to make sure they were gone.

Then Letty began vomiting and did not stop.

“I woke up and thought, ‘OK we've got to go to the ER,’” Rief says. “I tried breastfeeding her all night and every time she’d eat, she’d throw it right back up.”

Hannah Rief, Water bead
The Rief family wants to raise awareness of the dangers of water beads after their 14-month-old child accidentally swallowed one and it became stuck in her intestine.Courtesy Hannah Rief

The emergency room doctors thought Letty had a virus and gave her medication to stop her vomiting. Rief mentioned that she worried that Letty accidentally ate something. An x-ray didn’t detect anything. After some monitoring, the doctors released Letty and encouraged the family to return if she worsened. Soon, the anti-vomiting medication stopped working.

“She kept vomiting every 30 to 45 minutes,” Rief says. “We were back at the ER within seven hours."

Doctors realized she needed to be transferred to the larger children’s hospital in Omaha, Nebraska. The team there examined Letty and performed an x-ray, which again showed nothing. They ordered more scans and observed her all day Saturday.

“From the CT scan they could see the obstruction,” Rief says. “They really couldn’t tell what it was because it was very similar to the color of the intestine. It was radiolucent. It was transparent and there were a lot of questions and a lot of unknowns with it.”

Its unusual look caused doctors to wonder if something congenital caused the obstruction, while Rief disagreed.

“In my gut, I believe she swallowed something," she says.  

The mom of three knows how 14-month-old children put “everything” in their mouths. By Saturday night, doctors decided on surgery.

“All she’s really doing is blinking at this point, and it’s just scary,” Rief recalls.

After an almost three-hour surgery, the doctors spoke with the family about the water bead they found in Letty's small intestine.

“The anesthesiologist said, ‘Mom’s instincts are always right,’” Rief says. “I knew that it was a foreign object.”

Hannah Rief, Water bead
A photo taken during surgery shows the water bead that was blocking Letty's intestine, and shows part of her (now unblocked) intestine.Courtesy Hannah Rief

Letty spent a while in the pediatric intensive care unit recovering from the surgery. She has a scar from hip to hip. It was hard for Rief to see her feisty daughter acting so lethargic.

“She’s still so weak,” she says. “I can’t wait until she’s playing again.” 

Hannah Rief, Water bead
Courtesy Hannah Rief

What is in water beads?

TODAY.com reached out to one of the most popular manufacturers of water beads, but did not hear back.

Letty's story is similar to other children's. The shiny, colorful appearance makes them to attractive to toddlers; if swallowed, they can expand and become potentially deadly, safety experts say.

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 in an interview in 2023.

That gift was water beads. 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.   

Abigail and Kipley Haugen: Kipley got sick after swallowing a water bead toy that belonged to her older sister.
Abigail and Kipley Haugen: Kipley got sick after swallowing a water bead toy that belonged to her older sister.Courtesy Ashley Haugen

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.

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.” 

After Kipley Haugen accidentally ingested water beads, her mom says, she became very ill and experienced a lot of discomfort until doctors could remove them.
After Kipley Haugen accidentally ingested water beads, her mom says, she became very ill and experienced a lot of discomfort until doctors could remove them.Courtesy Ashley Haugen

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 or Letty’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.” 

Kipley Haugen is now 6. Her water bead accident "changed the trajectory of her life,” her mom Ashley says.
Kipley Haugen is now 6. Her water bead accident "changed the trajectory of her life,” her mom Ashley says.Courtesy Ashley Haugen

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
  • Vomiting

“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 small children away from water beads.

“Prevention is always the best method — not having them in the house when you have small children,” she says.

As a baby, Kipley learned sign language. After she experienced toxic encephalopathy and struggled to talk, she would sign.
As a baby, Kipley learned sign language. After she experienced toxic encephalopathy and struggled to talk, she would sign.Courtesy Ashley Haugen

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 7 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.”

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.”