September 17, 2012 — The journal Pediatrics has published a report from doctors in Texas who had to surgically remove an expandable toy ball from the intestines of a 9 month-old girl. She swallowed a toy called Water Balz, which looks like a marble or candy at first glance. However, the product is made of super-absorbent polymer material that is advertised to grow to the size of a racquetball when submerged in water.
Usually when children swallow a small object, it passes through the intestines without causing a problem. Less than 1% require surgical removal. The problem with Water Balz is that they can expand while passing through a child’s digestive tract. They may double in size within a few hours and can continue growing for several days without dissolving.
A few hours after the child swallowed the Water Balz toy, she began vomiting and couldn’t eat. Over the next 48 hours, her condition worsened, and her parents took her to the hospital. She was vomiting bile, had a distended abdomen, and painful constipation.
Doctors used X-rays to look for an obstruction, but could not see the object itself because the plastic toy was not visible on X-rays. They inserted a camera into her intestines and found the toy. The girl required surgery to remove the object, which was the size of a golf ball. The girl has recovered completely.
The child was fortunate that doctors were able to remove the ball before it could perforate her intestines and cause life-threatening complications. When doctors tested the products, they found that the balls could grow to 5.5 centimeters after four days, without degrading.
The doctors who wrote the report were concerned that super-absorbent polymer balls are becoming more popular in gardening, toys, and other household products. These could be hazardous for small children and animals — including pets or wildlife.
Several other products have made headlines recently after causing severe injuries in children. Buckyballs, which are small magnets that can cause life-threatening intestinal obstructions and perforations, and single-load laundry detergent packets that children often mistake for candy. Another study published in May found that about 66,000 children have swallowed button batteries in the last 20 years, which can cause life-threatening poisonings.
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