SAN ANTONIO – Kipley loves the color pink, playground swings and her toy turtle, Bumpy. But unlike most six-year-olds, she’s sending letters to poison control centers around the world.
Water beads — colorful, squishy polymer balls used in crafts, gardening, and sensory toys — are why.
“We had no idea that this could be what was making Kipley so sick,” said her mother, Ashley Haugen, who’s on a mission to warn others that the tiny, water-absorbing beads are more than a choking hazard.
Their frightening story began in the summer of 2017.
“She woke up and she just started projectile vomiting. And my husband and I were like, ‘this is not normal. This is strange,’” Haugen said.
Kipley was barely a year old when her parents rushed her to the emergency room. Doctors were baffled. X-rays, a CT scan, and an ultrasound revealed nothing. They resorted to exploratory surgery.
“He said, ‘You know, I don’t know what I’m going to find. I don’t know if she’s going to make it,’” Haugen recalled. “When he came out of the surgery room, he showed us a picture, and the picture was water bead material, which is what he found in her small intestine.”
Haugen knew immediately, it had come from her older daughter’s birthday gift. Aware of the potential choking hazard for the baby, Haugen said the girls had separate play areas and they were supervised. Still, somehow, the baby found and swallowed some.
“The beads bounce 30, 40 feet away from where you use them at times,” she said. “They shrink down to the size of a pinhead. They could hide in toys, under appliances.”
In the packaging, water beads are minuscule, but when wet, they gradually grow to the size of a marble or even a ping-pong ball.
If a child swallows even one, it can grow in the digestive tract.
“The problem is that because water beads look like candy, young children may be tempted to swallow them,” the American Academy of Pediatrics warns. “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.”
It is happening in homes across the country.
In Pennsylvania, baby Harper was mysteriously very sick until doctors found water beads blocking her intestine. Her mother, Whitney Reese, shared on social media that she had actually gotten rid of her older child’s water beads because she had learned of the ingestion danger. Still, somehow, the baby managed to find some.
In Maine, Folichia Mitchell shared her gut-wrenching journey as baby Kennedy endured a fight for her life after somehow finding and swallowing water beads that belonged to an older sibling.
Both babies are recovering. None of the parents allowed the small children to play with water beads.
But Kipley’s scare didn’t end with her surgery.
Her rash vanished and vomiting ceased, but within weeks, Haugen said her behavior changed.
“She wasn’t talking anymore. She wasn’t consistently answering to her name anymore. She wasn’t coordinated. She was weaker,” she said. “She just was not herself.”
Haugen said her concerns were dismissed by their regular pediatrician, but they were referred to a developmental pediatrician who diagnosed Kipley with toxic brain encephalopathy caused by acrylamide poisoning.
Haugen believes the source was residue from the water beads, marketed as non-toxic.
Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its warning to include, “while the beads are labeled as ‘non-toxic,’ concerns also been raised about the safety of the chemical acrylamide used to make them.”
Jennifer Northway, director of adult and pediatric injury prevention for University Health, said standards and definitions for what constitutes a toxic toy are lagging.
“You have something that meets standards, but the standard doesn’t fully identify all of the toxins that could be harmful to a child,” she said.
With therapies, Kipley is making progress. And, her mom is on a mission.
She met recently with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to push for clearer warning labels and to ban water beads as toys. She started a nonprofit and website, https://thatwaterbeadlady.org/, to provide information to families.
“They were never meant to be a toy,” she said. “And they should not be a toy now.”