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Water beads can be fatal if swallowed, Health Canada warns parents

If swallowed, water beads can continue to grow in the body and cause potentially fatal intestinal or bowel obstructions, according to Health Canada. They can also be 'very harmful' if put in the nose or ears. (Health Canada - image credit)
If swallowed, water beads can continue to grow in the body and cause potentially fatal intestinal or bowel obstructions, according to Health Canada. They can also be 'very harmful' if put in the nose or ears. (Health Canada - image credit)

Health Canada is warning parents and caregivers about water beads, which can be fatal if swallowed.

These tiny beads, also known as jelly beads, hydro orbs, crystal soil, sensory beads or orb beads, are water-absorbing gel beads that can grow up to 1,500 times their size when placed in water, according to the advisory.

"If ingested, water beads can continue to grow inside the body leading to potentially life-threatening injuries, such as intestinal or bowel obstruction," it says.

They are typically brightly coloured, which may lead young children or adults with cognitive impairment to mistake them for candy, Health Canada advises.

Water beads, which may be promoted to parents and caregivers for sensory play, can also be "very harmful" if placed in the nose or ears, it says.

If you're a parent or guardian of a child younger than five, you shouldn't have this product in your home or classroom. - Joey Brown, consumer product safety officer, Health Canada

"If you're a parent or guardian of a child younger than five, you shouldn't have this product in your home or classroom," said Joey Browne, consumer product safety officer for Health Canada in the Atlantic region.

"We are starting to see more incidents that have to do with this product," he said.

Water beads and products containing them should be kept out of sight and reach of young children.

Some of the products that may contain water beads include: art kits, stress balls, foot baths, vase fillers and gardening products. Water beads are also sold in their dehydrated form in individual containers.

6 reported incidents in Canada, 1 'severe'

Health Canada says it's aware of several international incidents where children who had ingested water beads sustained life-threatening injuries requiring surgical intervention.

Six incidents have been reported in Canada between June 20, 2011 and Jan. 31, 2023. Three of them resulted in injuries, including one that was "severe."

In the United States, there have been at least 248 water-bead cases between Jan. 1, 2017 to Nov. 22, 2022, according to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. Of these, 112 involved ingestion, 100 involved ear canal insertion, 35 involved nasal cavity insertion and one involved eye injury.

In several incidents, children gained access to beads that had rolled away from their initial location and were overlooked during clean-up, Health Canada said. The beads are slippery and bouncy, and can easily roll to another area, it said.

In some cases, young children gained access to water beads while at school or in childcare.

Investigation continues

Health Canada says it will continue to investigate the risks associated with water beads and any reports related to them. It takes enforcement actions when there is "reason to believe a consumer product poses a danger to human health or safety," according to the advisory.

"When we recall a product, or prohibit the sale of a product, it is because the product is a hazard when used as intended," said Browne.

In this case, the water beads are "used in a way that was not intended and which poses a danger. So that is why Health Canada has decided to issue a public advisory," he said.

What should you do?

Anyone who suspects a child has ingested a water bead should call the Canadian Poison Centre hotline at 1-844-POISON-X, said Health Canada.

Symptoms may include vomiting, abdominal or chest pain, abdominal swelling or soreness, constipation, lethargy, drooling, difficulty breathing or swallowing, or loss of appetite.

If health-care professionals see patients with such symptoms, they should investigate the possibility of ingested water beads immediately, Health Canada said. Water beads are unlikely to show up on an X-ray, it noted.

Children with water beads in their nose or ears should also get medical care.