The tiny, super-absorbent polymer balls can expand up to 400 times their original size when they come into contact with liquid. And while they're commonly used as decorative items in bowls or vases, they're also sold as a sensory activity for kids.
ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard said: "The products are small and colourful and can be attractive to young children, who naturally place items in their mouths at early stages of their development."
"Once ingested, just one ball can expand inside a child's body and cause intestinal obstruction, vomiting, severe discomfort and dehydration and may need to be surgically removed," she said.
Sometimes called fairy eggs or dragon eggs, water beads have obvious appeal to kids. They're available in a rainbow of colours, and kids enjoy the magic of watching the beads steadily absorb water over a number of hours, as well as the tactile experience of playing with the resulting gel-like spheres. Our video illustrates how absorbent the beads are - and these were the variety that just expanded to the size of a marble!
You can buy packs of water beads online for just a few dollars, and they come in a range of sizes – from those that expand to the size of a small marble to others that can expand to the size of a golf ball. And they're frequently marketed specifically for kids. We saw them variously described as "slippery, squishy, and a fun and addictive sensory experience for kids of all ages", an "awesome play experience" and a "tactile learning tool for older children".
Water beads for display not play
But the ACCC wants this to change.
"We urge businesses who are supplying these products as toys to immediately stop. The ACCC will work with industry to address safety concerns," said Rickard.
The ACCC urged consumers to follow these safety steps:
Stop using expanding water balls as toys or playthings immediately.
Keep expanding water balls out of reach of children – make sure these products are well out of sight and out of reach of children.
Keep any items such as decorative pieces like vases that contain expanding water balls well out of reach of children.
If consumers suspect their child has swallowed these water balls, they should seek medical attention immediately.
CHOICE on toy safety
Choking and suffocation are the biggest toy-related hazards for children under three. And while you could argue that water bead play leans towards older kids, it appeals to younger children as well which is where the risk largely lies. And only two of the websites we looked at warned that the beads aren't suitable for the younger age group.
CHOICE's Safe toys buying guide has more details, but as a guide, if a toy or its parts could fit wholly into a 35mm film canister, don't give it to a child under three.