Revisiting Water Beads (Orbeez) in Ice Lanterns

Jennifer Shea Hedberg | 16 January, 2021

Bucket Ice Lantern with Orbeez and now banned Water Balz Ice Wrangler 

Water beads make amazing-looking ice lanterns. 
A few years ago, while writing the section of my book, Ice Luminary Magic called "Freezing Objects into Ice", I did experiments with many different items to test the float vs sink concept in regards to ice lanterns. One of the things I tried was Orbeez and Water Balz (larger versions of water beads). I LOVED the way they worked because they didn't exactly float--they seemed to hover. This behavior was unlike anything I tried before. As you can see by the photo above, the results were very fun. 

The problem 
A friend mentioned to me that water balls might be dangerous to kids and wildlife. I did some research online and found a news item titled: Consumer Reports: Super Absorbent Toy Ball Caution.

South Florida NBC

 One quote stood out, "They’re colorful and alluring, but Consumer Reports says there’s a potential safety hazard with popular small toy balls and beads that expand dramatically in water. There are many of those super-absorbent polymer balls on the market, although one was recalled late last year—Dunecraft Water Balz." Yikes, I thought, I used the Water Balz in this ice lantern.

Given that article and few more, I decided to NOT include this idea in my book or promote the idea on social media. 

Fast forward a few years and Molly Schad, a creative soul from Missouri, sent me photos of ice lanterns she had made using Orbeez and was rightfully thrilled with the outcome. They are very cool!

Molly Schad using Orbeez in ice lanterns

After a private message session with Molly, I decided to revisit the idea of using water beads in ice lanterns.

Further down in the Consumer Report article, I found a rebuttal from Sharon Cohen of The Maya Group, which is either the manufacturer or a distributor of Orbeez:

"I am responding to the May article you published on the recall of DuneCraft’s Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP) toys. The article makes strong but erroneous connections between the safety of the toys recalled by DuneCraft and our Orbeez products. While DuneCraft’s Water Balz were rightfully recalled because they are dangerous if swallowed, Orbeez pose no danger of obstruction if swallowed. Size really does matter. While DuneCraft products grow up to 57 mm in diameter in water, Orbeez will reach a maximum of 14mm in water and a maximum diameter of 7mm in the intestines. A scientist in your video claims that Orbeez and other SAPs, though smaller than DuneCraft Water Balz, will grow large enough to cause blockage. That is simply false. Our data and empirical evidence prove conclusively that Orbeez are not dangerous if swallowed. They pass through the digestive tract and are expelled naturally without causing harm. They are non-toxic, do not bind together and do not break down in the digestive process."

Orbeez logo

She goes on to discuss the difference between "Age Grade" and "Choking Hazard and makes a good argument. As I am getting excited about the possiblity of using Orbeez again, I have to remember that she is biased. 

I also found an abstract in the National Library of Science (June 2015) titled, "Orbeez: the magic water absorbing bead--risk of pediatric bowel obstruction?"

Their objective: "In December 2012, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled the water-absorbing toy WaterBalz after reports of small intestine obstruction after ingestion by children. Orbeez, another water-absorbing bead, remains available and is marketed as a children's toy. We sought to determine the extent to which Orbeez enlarge in various liquid media and the potential risk for bowel obstruction."

Their conclusion: "Orbeez beads enlarge to a different extent in different liquid media. It is unlikely that Orbeez beads would expand to sizes or demonstrate clumping that would be concerning for intestinal obstruction."

Is The National Library of Science a credible source? It is so hard to tell these days. Maybe there is a doctor reading this blog who will know. 

My conclusion 
All the articles I am finding now say water beads are biodegradable and safe for pets and children - with the caveat of the choking hazard for little ones. The overriding factor is the idea that wildlife could be affected. I wonder about birds swallowing the dried water beads that might look like seeds . . . 

A safer possibility might be to try edible water beads in ice lanterns. I have not tried them yet. Do they hover or sink? If you try it, let me know what you think.

Given all this, I am not fully convinced that using water beads in ice lanterns is a great idea to promote. I don't feel like I was able to find credible sources to guide me given the rather severe health consequences. And besides, the water beads were a nightmare to deal with once the ice lantern melted. If you have an opinion and/or a good source of information on the subject, please let me know. I would love to feel comfortable using Orbeez again! 

Troubleshooting for water bead use 
If you decide to try an ice lantern with water beads, I can offer a few suggestions:

#1 Consider lighting the ice lantern with LED lights instead of a candle. There is always going to be some melting that happens on the inside of an ice lantern. I found that water beads kept coming free and putting out the candle. A fix for this problem would be to put the candle inside a second regular ice lantern or a tall fire-safe container inside your ice lantern made with water beads to keep the falling water beads from putting out the flame. 

#2 Use as few water beads as possible. If you use the Freeze-Solid Bucket Ice Lantern project (page 23 of Ice Luminary Magic) or substitute water beads for ice cubes in the Food Color Ice Cube Lantern project (page 151 of ILM) then you need fewer water beads to complete the task. The second/inside container or PVC pipe will keep the water beads toward the outside as it freezes, thus using less. 

#3 Size appears to matter for safety. As you can see from the photo, I used two sizes of water beads—large and regular size. The effect of two sizes is very cool, but the news article from Miami and many of the other websites I read all mention that the real danger from water beads seems to be with the use of the larger sizes, which they claim can cause an obstruction in a human if swallowed. And, although I thought I read that the larger sizes were banned purchase in the US, it appears you can still buy them. If I ever decide to make another ice lantern with water beads or not, I don't think I will ever use the larger ones. I think I will try other ways to add interest, such as mixing in ice cubes to break up the pattern, or something else.   

Closeup of Orbeez in ice lantern Ice Wrangler Wintercraft

I would love to see what you create and what you thought about using water beads in ice lanterns - keep me in the loop!

Enjoy the Glow!
-- Jennifer Shea Hedberg, The Ice Wrangler, @icewrangler


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