‘Trouble in Toyland’ report adds water beads to list of dangerous toys before holiday shopping season


Chicagoans shopping for children this holiday season should be wary of smart toys and avoid buying water beads, according to a toy safety report released Thursday.

“For a child, especially a young child, there’s no wrong way for them to play with a toy. They’re meant to explore the toy, play with the toy however they want to, that’s how they learn and grow,” said Dev Gowda, deputy director of Chicago-based nonprofit Kids in Danger. “That’s why it’s very especially important that these toys are made safe and designed safely.”

Last year, 145,000 toy-related injuries were treated in children 12 and under at emergency rooms across the country, according to Alex Hoehn-Saric, chair of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Hoehn-Saric was joined by a panel of consumer watchdogs, medical personnel and toy safety experts, including Kids in Danger, for a news conference to share findings from the annual “Trouble in Toyland” report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The report focused on warning parents and gift-givers of the dangers of water beads, which are small polymer crystals that expand to the size of a marble or golf ball when they come in contact with water or bodily fluids. Because of this, they can cause intestinal blockages and other hazards if swallowed. 

At least one child has died of water bead-related issues, and between 2016 and 2022, 7,800 water bead injuries were treated in emergency rooms, according to Gowda. 

Jerri Rose, an emergency medicine pediatrician in Cleveland, said water beads don’t show up on X-rays, making them extra difficult to identify as the source of a problem. ER departments have seen an increase in the number of water bead-related cases in recent years, she added.

“They’re the size of a sprinkle so it’s even worse than confetti for New Years — they can get all over the house,” Gowda said. “We’ve had stories of families when they bought it for older kids, years later, years after the fact, a younger child found them in the house and ingested them and got very, very sick with life-altering injuries.”

Panelists at the conference also urged people to be cautious with purchasing smart toys, which may lack adequate security protocols or collect data about children that could be leaked in a data breach.

R.J. Cross, director of PIRG’s Don’t Sell My Data program, used a bluetooth karaoke microphone as an example, pointing out that anyone nearby could access the device through bluetooth and play audio for a child.

“For almost every kind of toy, someone somewhere has made a ‘smart’ version by adding in a tech component that may or may not need to be there,” Cross said.

She said smart toys that collect audio are safer if they require a button to be pressed rather than just listening all the time. Cross encouraged caution around toys with apps as they are more likely to collect data.

The report also warned about the availability of recalled and counterfeit toys on online marketplaces, the dangers of swallowing button batteries and choking hazards in toys with small parts.

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