NEW YORK (AP) — Three major retailers — Amazon, Target and Walmart — say they're suspending sales of water-bead products marketed to young children due to growing safety concerns.
Water beads are small, colorful balls made of superabsorbent polymers. They are often sold as toys, including in craft activity kits, and as sensory tools for children with developmental disabilities. But warnings about the dangers of the beads being ingested have been piling up.
“When (water beads) absorb water, they can swell to many times their size,” said Dr. Joshua King, medical director of the Maryland Poison Center. “And while most even still pass through the gut without trouble, occasionally they swell to a size where they actually obstruct the bowel.”
This can lead to severe discomfort and life-threatening injuries, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission notes in online guidance — adding that water beads can also end up in ears, causing damage or hearing loss. According to the regulator, an estimated 7,800 water bead-related injuries were treated in hospital emergency rooms between 2016 and 2022.
Amazon confirmed Thursday that it updated its policy on water bead sales earlier this week “in the interest of safety.” The e-commerce giant will no longer allow the sale of water beads that are marketed to children, including as toys, art supplies or for sensory play, a spokesperson said.
Under Amazon's updated policy, listings will be removed if they include images of children with the products or have references including “child,” “kid,” “crafts” or “sensory play.” Sellers have until Dec. 22 to comply, the spokesperson said.
Walmart also confirmed its decision to stop selling “expanding water bead toy and craft items marketed to young children,” noting the company has already taken steps to remove the products in stores and online. And Target said it will no longer sell water beads marketed to children aged 12 and under — similarly citing growing safety concerns.
Target has started removing the products from its shelves and online this week, a spokesperson said, and expects to complete the process by the first weeks of January.
Target previously sold “Chuckle & Roar Ultimate Water Beads Activity Kits,” which were recalled in September. The activity kits, manufactured by Buffalo Games, were pulled from shelves after the reported death of 10-month-old in Wisconsin who swallowed the water beads and another report of 9-month-old in Maine who underwent surgery after being seriously injured from ingesting the beads.
Amazon, Walmart and Target aren't the only retailers with policies limiting water-bead sales today. EBay points to measures it has implemented over the years — including filters to prevent sellers from listing water beads marketed as toys, and safety warning requirements for other water-bead products. And Etsy has now prohibited water beads entirely, “regardless of their marketing or intended use,” a spokesperson said.
Ashley Haugen, founder of advocacy nonprofit That Water Bead Lady, said Thursday that proactive action from companies “not only saves lives, but builds trust among consumers.”
“I’m really proud because what you see and what this action shows is the result of parents, advocates, health care professionals, policy makers and corporations working together to create a safer world for all of our children,” said Haugen, who founded That Water Bead Lady after her youngest daughter was critically injured by water beads in 2017.
Beyond company-by-company corporate measures, lawmakers and advocates have also continued to push for more widespread change — which some say is overdue.
Last month, U.S. Rep Frank Pallone Jr., a Democrat of New Jersey, introduced legislation to ban all water beads marketed for kids' use nationwide. Pallone was joined by CPSC Chair Alex Hoehn-Saric and other consumer safety advocates, including Haugen, when announcing the bill.
Since water beads and countless other objects that children can ingest (whether they're toys or not) are still out there, experts advise families to stay vigilant, keep an eye on what their kids are playing with, and store potential hazards out of sight and reach. If something happens, he points to local poison centers and the Poison Help line (1-800-222-1222) as good resources.
“We recognize that the children swallow things all the time — and we’re here to help," King said.
Perez Winder reported from Chicago.