Little kids have been in the news for swallowing magnetic "Bucky Balls" and detergent pods.
And now there's a case report of an 8-month-old baby girl named
Aunraya, who was brought to Texas Children's Hospital because she
swallowed a new toy: a superabsorbent polymer ball.
Her great grandmother and legal guardian, Freida Deweese, thought
Aunraya had swallowed a "piece of candy." But it was actually a Water Balz toy, which starts out the size of a marble and is advertised to grow to 400 times its original size when put in water.
This little girl swallowed it, it absorbed moisture inside her, and it completely blocked her digestive system so that nothing could get through.
She was vomiting bile, had a distended belly, and severe painful constipation by the time she went to the operating room. Her X-ray shows that many loops of her digestive tract are far wider than normal.
Why does this happen? It's similar to plumbing. When there is a complete
blockage, things back up behind it and pile up, causing the bowel to
get bigger. Because nothing can get through, the areas after the
blockage are smaller than usual.
Aunraya was lucky enough to go into surgery to have it removed before it
poked a hole in her gut and caused serious complications.
"There is a tendency to wait and wait," said Dr. Oluyinka Olutoye, a
pediatric surgeon at Texas Children's Hospital and associate professor
of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "We were
fortunate enough that we did [surgery] early enough. If the treatment is
delayed, there could be perforation with peritonitis" -- a
When the surgeons operated, they found a 3.5 centimeter intact gel ball
that was blocking part of her small intestines. Because they caught it
early, she didn't have any complications.
This is the first reported case of a complete blockage caused by one of
these polymer balls in humans. The authors of the case report, published
today in the journal Pediatrics, wanted to learn more about these
polymer balls and conducted an experiment looking at five of the balls.
They measured the sizes of the balls at different time intervals up to
four days after they were submerged.
Within two hours, the balls had doubled in size, and by 12 hours --
slightly less than the time it took for Aunraya to get to the hospital
-- they had doubled in size again to about 4 centimeters. They grew as
big as 5.5 centimeters after four days, without any signs of
A gel toy that "grows" can be very exciting and fun for children to play
with, but may pose a potential public health concern, experts say. But
the company behind Water Balz says its toys are made for older kids who
should know better than to swallow them.
"[These toys are] obviously not for an 8-month-old," said Grant
Cleveland, CEO of Dunecraft, Inc., the company that markets Water Balz,
adding that the toys' packaging says "For ages 4 and up. Warning:
choking hazard." "You wouldn't let your 8-month-old near [loose] change
or marbles. Even Legos are dangerous to an 8-month-old."
Cleveland added, "The marked age is 4 and up, so they're not supposed to
be around toddlers. We've sold all types of balls, probably for like
eight years. We've never had a problem, shipping millions of units."
In fact, 80 to 90 percent of foreign bodies pass through children's
digestive systems on their own without problems, 10 to 20 percent
require removal with a non-invasive scope, and fewer than 1 percent
While most cases of foreign body ingestion in children don't cause a problem, these toys are different.
The unique growth rates of these polymer balls and the fact that they cannot be seen on X-rays present a challenge for doctors.
"We are trying to sound the alarm as the prevalence of the balls is
increasing," said Olutoye. "While they are fun and make good science
projects, [they] can have disastrous consequence when ingested."
Still, Aunraya was lucky that someone had seen her swallow something.
She had prompt surgery. She did well and went home four days after the