After years of warnings and one-off recalls, water beads may soon disappear from store shelves altogether due to child safety concerns.
On Monday, November 13, Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey announced plans to introduce a bill at the House of Representatives to ban the popular sensory balls, which are an ultra-popular sensory toy and are made from a water-absorbing polymer that can expand up to 100 times their original size and weight when placed in liquid.
“They are specifically marketed to kids. In a single small package, you can have 25, 50, or even 75 thousand of these beads, and it just takes one to cause harm to a child,” said Pallone at a news conference. “They are not labeled as dangerous to small children, there’s no warning, and they’re not hard to get.”
As recently reported by Fatherly, the American toy company Buffalo Games issued a recall of approximately 52,000 of its Chuckle & Roar Ultimate Water Beads Activity Kits in September of 2023 after receiving a report of a 9-month-old child who was seriously injured and a 10-month-old child who died in connection with the water bead toys, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
“Chuckle & Roar is working with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission on a voluntary recall of the Ultimate Water Beads Activity Kit,” the company shared on social media at the time of the recall. “Consumers should immediately stop using and take away the recalled water beads from children.”
“People are going say, ‘Do you have to prohibit these completely? Are there some that are safe?'” Pallone, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, asked. “The answer is, no, there are none that are safe. We have to ban them because there’s absolutely no way to ensure through any kind of education that they’re going to be safe.”
Unfortunately, water beads are just a big problem. They are ubiquitous. A Consumer Reports analysis of Amazon sales data shows that 3.4 million packages of water beads were sold through the site between September 2021 and July 2023, so even if they aren’t in your home, your child will likely come across them at some point.
With water beads proving to be such a big deal, parents are bound to have questions about what all the fuss is about, what’s next, and how they should respond.
Are Water Beads Safe?
All signs point to no. Since 2017, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 4,500 visits to the emergency room have been connected to water bead incidents.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “The problem is that because water beads look like candy, young children may be tempted to swallow them. Kids also have put them in their ears and even inhaled them. The beads can continue to grow once inside the body, causing blockages and life-threatening damage. And the beads may not be visible on X-rays.”
And despite concerns about the safety of the chemical acrylamide used to make water beads, they are typically labeled as “non-toxic,” which leads parents to believe they are safe while rarely mentioning any of the aforementioned risks.
Why Are Water Beads So Popular?
Both kids and adults love water beads because they’re mesmerizing. The sensory toys grow and expand in size quickly, they are multicolored and have a fun translucent look, and their slippery texture feels wonderful. Unlike sensory activities like kinetic sand or slime, the beads are easy to cleanup. They’re also inexpensive and easy to store when dry, which makes them appealing to parents.
Weren’t Water Beads Already Banned?
No. Numerous specific water bead products have been recalled over the last 15 years, but the product has never been banned outright in the United States.
One of the first recalls was in November 2007, when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a recall of Aqua Dots after the toy reportedly included chemicals, including GHB, that caused children to become seriously ill after swallowing beads from the toy craft kits. (That case went to trial.) While numerous concerns have been raised about the safety of water beads since that initial ban, the response to this point has been limited to warnings and individual product recalls.
What Is The CPSC Doing About Water Beads?
According to CPSC Chair Alexander Hoehn-Saric, regulatory steps that can be taken by CPSC to prevent water beads from being on store shelves could take years and still face court challenges.
“Legislation is a much more direct way. It puts in protections much more quickly and definitely,” he said at the press conference announcing the Ban Water Beads Act.
In addition to supporting legislative efforts to ban water beads, the CPSC has worked to raise awareness about the potential dangers of water beads.
According to the CPSC FAQ on water beads, “CPSC urges parents and caregivers to remove these products from any environment with small children (3 years old and younger). CPSC also urges childcare centers, camps, and schools to avoid these products entirely. If you suspect your child has swallowed or inserted a water bead into their ear or nose, seek medical treatment immediately.”
Hoehn-Saric has indicated that the commission is also investigating taking further action regarding potentially harmful chemicals in water beads.
“But this bill is so important because it is the fastest way to move forward and address the problem across the country for all parents,” he said.
What Would The Ban Water Beads Act Do?
It would instruct the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban the beads that are marketed as children’s toys.
How Do I Safely Dispose Of Water Beads?
First things first, do not dump water beads down drains, sinks, tubs, or toilets. As they expand, they may wreak havoc on home plumbing systems, though likely not to the catastrophic extent that Youtuber and internet influencer Cyril Schreiner would lead folks to believe after he allegedly backed up his neighborhood septic system after sending a bathtub full of water beads into the sewer.
It’s as simple as throwing them away. According to the National Capital Poison Center, “used water beads can be disposed of in the trash. Superabsorbent polymers biodegrade over time in the environment. They are unlikely to contaminate the soil or environment.”
Allowing water beads to dry out will cause them to shrink back down to their original size and make them easier to dispose of. Some people have been known to compost the beads, till them into gardens, and mix them into household plant soil. Regardless of how you get rid of water beads, ensure you do so in a way that keeps them away from children or animals who may be inclined to eat them.
Are There Safe Water Bead Alternatives?
Yes. And they’re easy to find. Some parents have taken to putting frozen peas in a bucket or a big plastic bag with water and taping them to a table for kids to slap and play with, for example.
Still, whether or not the Ban Water Beads Act becomes law, parents should know that the product can potentially be very dangerous for kids, and should seek out alternatives for sensory play.