Hong Kong: The story started with a two-year-old boy who was taken to a Sydney hospital on 5 October in a shallow coma and suffering from seizure-like spasms. It ended with the latest recall of a Chinese-made toy, as the Consumer Product Safety Commission ordered the recall of 4.2 million Aqua Dots in the US on Wednesday.
Connecting the two events were four weeks of medical sleuthing by Kevin Carpenter, a biochemical geneticist in Sydney. He discovered the boy in Sydney had eaten Bindeez beads, celebrated as Australia’s “Toy of the Year” and the same product as Aqua Dots; once ingested, they released a chemical related to GHB, the banned date rape drug.
Doctors at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, outside Sydney, first believed that the boy, whose name has not been released, had an inherited metabolic disorder. But when Carpenter checked urine samples the next day for the chemical markers of the disorder, he found GHB, which can render victims unconscious and even cause death through respiratory failure. “We suspected at that time the child had been surreptitiously given” the drug by a family member or friend of the family, he said by phone from Sydney on Wednesday.
A follow-up test two days later showed the GHB had disappeared from the boy’s body, which confirmed the chemical had been ingested and was not because of a genetic disorder.
It was then that Carpenter learnt that the boy had vomited beads before and after going into a shallow coma. Carpenter obtained more of the boy’s beads and tested them in a mass spectrometer, a device that helps identify chemical compounds. “I saw a large peak of a substance I didn’t recognize,” he said.
The “peak” was an obscure industrial chemical used to prevent water-soluble glues from becoming sticky before they are needed. But when ingested, it quickly breaks down to become GHB. The US tightly restricts the chemical’s sale and places GHB in the same category as heroin.
Carpenter bought a small quantity of the industrial chemical, a purchase that required considerable paperwork to assure the vendor that it would not be used illegally.
He contacted the toy’s worldwide distributor, Moose Enterprise of Australia, who referred him to Hong Kong office of the manufacturer. It provided a list of the beads’ ingredients, which did not include the dangerous industrial chemical. Carpenter said the maker was reluctant to provide details of how the beads were made.
“The manufacturer was very keen that Moose not know what was in them,” apparently to prevent Moose from ordering identical beads from another manufacturer, Carpenter said. He alerted the ministry of fair trading of New South Wales, the state where Sydney is located. The hospital’s poison control centre then sent out a warning about the beads last Friday to poison centres around Australia.
The next day, a mother living near his hospital found her 10-year-old daughter motionless. Then, the girl began vomiting beads. At the hospital’s poison control centre, doctors recognized the symptoms immediately. “Both the children presented with coma and seizure-like movements,” said Naren Gunja, deputy director of the centre. On Tuesday, Moose ordered a recall in Australia of Bindeez beads.
On Wednesday, Carpenter said safety regulators should look beyond Bindeez to conduct laboratory tests on all similar craft toys. These toys, sold under brand names including Aqua Dots and Aqua Beads, contain packets of brightly coloured beads that children arrange into mosaics, then sprinkle with water; the beads then stick together in as little as 10 minutes to form durable artworks.
The same day, Peter Mahon, a Moose spokesman, said the company had ordered safety tests on Bindeez beads sold in more than 40 other countries, but that it was awaiting results before deciding whether to expand its recall beyond Australia. But Amazon’s British website, Amazon.co.uk, abruptly stopped listing Bindeez products for sale. Toys LiFung (Asia) of Hong Kong said it had removed all Bindeez items from the Toys “R” Us stores that it operates in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. Later on Wednesday, the Toronto-based company that markets Aqua Dots, Spin Master, asked retailers across North America to remove the product from their shelves “out of an abundance of caution.” And late Wednesday, the Consumer Product Safety Commission ordered a recall, saying that two children had fallen seriously ill in the last several days after eating Aqua Dots.
In Britain, Aqua Beads is marketed by Flair Leisure Products Plc. Peter Brown, chief executive of Flair, said that on learning of Moose’s recall on Tuesday, the company immediately sent Aqua Beads samples to an independent laboratory for tests. The tests showed no sign of the precursor to GHB, Brown said. Flair buys Aqua Beads from a Chinese supplier, but not the same manufacturer or factory as Moose, he added. Flair has nonetheless begun a broader review of possible toxic risks.
“We are 99.9% sure the product is safe, but we are conducting more tests,” Brown said.
Hong Kong customs officials said they had sent Bindeez toys to a government laboratory for testing after learning that the Australian distributor had used its office here to buy the toy from its maker and ship it. Moose said it found the beads had been substituted, but had not authorized this. It declined to identify the supplier.
© 2007/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Tim Johnston in Sydney contributed to this story.