LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The parents of a Jacksonville toddler were horrified when their child swallowed part of a colorful toy bead set made in China and then passed out. He apparently was overcome when the coating on the beads metabolized into a chemical compound known as the "date rape drug."
"I thought he was going to die. I didn't want to tell my kids that, of course, but I thought he was going to die," said Shelby Esses, whose son Jack swallowed a handful of Spin Master Aqua Dots the day before Halloween. "It was horrible."
In the latest recall involving Chinese toy makers, the Consumer Product Safety Commission on Wednesday ordered Aqua Dots off store shelves.
At least two children in the U.S. and four in Australia have been hospitalized after swallowing the beads.
Spin Master Aqua Dots can be arranged into designs and then fused together when sprayed with water.
Jack Esses, 20 months old, started stumbling and throwing up the Aqua Dots after playing with his sister's set on Oct. 30, his mother said in an interview Thursday. For a time, he slipped out of consciousness — waking up only to vomit.
"I thought that the Aqua Dots had to have done something, but I wasn't sure because I didn't think they were toxic. There was no warning on the box that said they were toxic. It just said that they were a choking hazard," the child's mother said.
Dr. Matt Jaeger of Arkansas Children's Hospital treated the child and said he was very worried when he first saw him. The hospital started tests and performed a head scan, but within hours the boy recovered.
"He got better so fast we ended up letting him go home," Jaeger said.
Scientists say a chemical coating on the beads, when ingested, metabolizes into gamma hydroxy butyrate, the so-called date rape drug. The compound can induce unconsciousness, seizures, drowsiness, coma and death.
"He was out for about six hours, and he woke up just kind of on his own and, within minutes, was back to his normal self," Shelby Esses said. "He was just happy and yelling and wanting to get out of the hospital and causing a stir. All of the nurses wanted to come see him."
Jaeger said the hospital lab was able to identify the chemical involved after Shelby Esses brought in toy components for testing. Before Jack was released, his father crawled around on the carpet at home to make sure every Aqua Dot was out of the house.
Australia-based Moose Enterprises distributes the toys in 40 countries.
Peter Mahon, a spokesman for Moose Enterprises, said the company was conducting an internal investigation to determine how the chemical came to be included in the beads, which are made at a factory in Shenzhen in China's Guangdong province.
He said "ingredients were switched at the point of manufacture without Moose's knowledge." He declined to give the name of the factory, saying it was "not appropriate" at this time.
"Really the main thing we're doing is concentrating our efforts on making people aware that children shouldn't be playing with these products and getting them back," Mahon said in a telephone interview.
Retailer Toys "R" Us issued a "stop sale" for Aqua Dots in its North American stores and on its Web site after it learned children had become ill.
In Australia, the toy was named toy of the year at an industry function. But the toys, known as Bindeez in that country, were ordered off store shelves Tuesday when officials learned that a 2-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl were hospitalized after swallowing the beads. A 19-month-old and an 18-month-old also were being treated.
Since the spring, toy companies have recalled millions of Chinese-made goods worldwide. Products including Barbie doll accessories and toy cars were pulled off shelves because of concerns about lead paint or tiny detachable magnets that could be swallowed.
A company spokeswoman for Moose Enterprises' Hong Kong office said Aqua Dots production was outsourced to a mainland Chinese factory. She refused to elaborate and referred all further requests for comment to the company's head office in Australia.
The toys were supposed to be made using 1,5-pentanediol, a nontoxic compound found in glue, but instead contained the harmful 1,4-butanediol, which is widely used in cleaners and plastics.
The Food and Drug Administration in 1999 declared the chemical a Class I Health Hazard, meaning it can cause life-threatening harm.
Both chemicals are manufactured in China and elsewhere, including by major multinational companies, and are also marketed over the Internet.
It's not clear why 1,4-butanediol was substituted, though there is a significant price difference. The Chinese online trading platform ChemNet China lists the price of 1,4-butanediol at between about $1,350-$2,800 per metric ton, while the price for 1,5-pentanediol is about $9,700 per metric ton.