Monday, December 11, 2023

Water Beads: A Small But Significant Ethics Issue


Water beads, which are spheres of a highly absorbent polymer compound that absorbs water to produce glassy-clear globules that are nearly all water, turn out to be the focus of an ethical issue as complex as many that involve more influential technologies.  I managed to survive until an advanced age in complete ignorance of the existence of water beads.  But now that I've found out about them, they turn out to be more controversial than you'd think.


It all began last Friday at a Christmas dinner and concert at a church some friends of ours attend.  The table decorations were clear plastic candle stands with a thin stem supporting a clear cup that had what looked like water in it.  Floating on the water was a disc-shaped candle, but what caught my interest was what I saw between the candle and the bottom of the cup.


Somehow, there were five or six small Christmas ornaments suspended at various heights in the cup, which was at least two or three inches (2.5-4 cm) high.  Some ornaments were at the bottom, some were suspended in the middle, and some were near the top.  This got my physics-oriented mind going:  what kept the ornaments from either all falling to the bottom or floating to the top?  Was it clear gelatin?  A touch of my fork to the top of the cup proved that no, there was plain water at the top.  (You see how I spend my time at parties.)  I leaned over to my friend at the next table, who is also technically inclined, and asked him how it worked.  He had no idea, but knew the lady who did the table decorations and said he'd ask her after the event was over.


When we caught up with her, she said, "You want to know my candle-holder secret?  Orbeez."


We didn't know what Orbeez were.


"Water beads.  See, here's a cup that got spilled."  On the table were dozens of what looked like clear marbles, maybe 5 mm (1/4 inch or so) in diameter.  Being almost all water, they are almost invisible when suspended in water.  If I looked through an intact cup with its ornaments, I could see sort of ripples in the clear fluid, like heat waves above a hot road in the summer, but nothing more than that.  The water beads in the water stay intact and support the Christmas decorations at various heights.  Mystery solved, but what the heck were Orbeez?


It's a trade name for water spheres made with a special polymer originally developed to make highly absorbent sanitary napkins in the 1970s.  When compressed dry into either spheres or various other shapes, the material expands when placed in water, but retains its relative shape.  Wikipedia's article on expandable water toys describes both the attraction they have for children and also the hazards they pose.


Especially if the objects are brightly colored or have interesting shapes resembling candy, it's easy to imagine a baby or young child eating them.  And this has happened—a lot.  The problem is that unless the object is already saturated with water, it will continue to absorb water and expand inside the digestive tract.  The U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has a grim webpage with an X-ray showing a child's colon filled with water beads that caused an intestinal blockage, which leads to severe illness or even death if untreated. 


According to an article on the website, 4,500 emergency-room visits in the U. S. were attributed to water beads from 2017 to 2022.  This is why last month, U. S. Representative Frank Pallone introduced legislation that would ban the sale of such beads altogether.


As with other engineering-ethics issues, the first step is to identify the parties involved.  The manufacture of the beads takes place offshore, mostly in China.  Retailers buy them either directly or from repackagers, and sell them to the public.  Both children and their parents buy the beads, and adults such as our table decorator as well as children use them.  Some types of beads have a maximum size of only a few millimeters, and are advertised as harmless except to very young children, whose small-bore internal plumbing could still be plugged by such objects.  Others can get as large as two inches (about 50 mm), and pose a clear hazard if ingested. 


What we have now is close to a libertarian approach to the problem.  Water beads as such are unregulated, but the CPSC has issued consumer recalls on specific brands of water beads that appear to be very likely to be misused.  For example, Target sold a product called "Chuckle and Roar Ultimate Water Bead Activity Kit."  The CPSC issued a recall notice for this product on Sept. 14 of this year.  It's not stated why this particular product was singled out, unless it was associated with an unusually high number of ER visits. 


Rep. Pallone's bill would take the government-knows-best approach and simply ban all such products, at least according to the brief report on it.  It's unclear whether responsible adult users such as florists and decorators would be allowed to buy them, perhaps after showing proof they are over 18, like ammunition is treated.  If enforcement is not any more rigorous than the regulations around buying ammunition, which I did online by simply checking a box saying that I was over 18, the new law might not be very effective.


Somehow, people with small children keep them alive in houses full of things that might hurt them:  drain cleaner, cleaning fluids, medicines, and so on.  While allowing a very young child who doesn't know the difference between food and plastic to play with water beads seems unwise, it's up to society at large to decide whether hundreds of ER trips every year for kids who eat water beads is worth the pleasure they derive from using them properly. 


To be frank, most of society is unaware that there is even an issue.  If Rep. Pallone's bill advances toward passage, you can count on the water-bead sellers to protest, and unless there is an organized group such as Parents Against Water Beads, the voices of the manufacturers and retailers may prevail.  In that case, we'll all just have to be more careful and try not to make this world any more hazardous than it is already for small children.  Even if water beads really are cool looking.


Sources:  The article describing Rep. Pallone's bill is at  The CPSC statement on the water-bead product recall is at

  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on "Expandable Water Toy." 

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