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Industrial Chemical Sullies Popular Children's Toy

1,4-Butanediol rapidly converts to γ-hydroxybutyric acid in the body

by Linda Wang
November 9, 2007


The chemical at the center of the recall of a popular children's toy this week is 1,4-butanediol, an industrial solvent commonly used in the manufacture of other organic chemicals. In the body, 1,4-butanediol is rapidly absorbed and metabolized into γ-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), commonly referred to as the date-rape drug because of its ability to induce deep sleep.

Rapid Metabolism
1,4-Butanediol is quickly converted to γ-hydroxybutyric acid in the body.
1,4-Butanediol is quickly converted to γ-hydroxybutyric acid in the body.

The children's toy comes in a kit containing colorful beads that can be arranged into various designs. The beads are coated with a chemical that causes them to stick together after being sprayed with water.

Children who swallow the beads become dizzy, vomit, and can slip into a temporary coma. Two incidents related to the beads have been reported in the U.S., and four cases have been reported in Australia.

The toy is marketed in North America under the brand Aqua Dots by Toronto-based distributor Spin Master; in Australia, the toy is sold under the name Bindeez by Moose Enterprises of Melbourne. Both products are manufactured in China.

On Wednesday, Moose Enterprises announced an Australia-wide recall of Bindeez. Subsequently, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Spin Master issued a voluntary recall of 4.2 million units of Aqua Dots in North America.

Kevin Carpenter, a biochemical geneticist at Children's Hospital, Westmead, Australia, who discovered the presence of 1,4-butanediol on the beads, said he decided to test the beads by using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry after finding the beads in the vomit of a sick child. Urine samples from the child contained GHB.

"When we first did the testing of the beads, the only thing I was hopeful of finding would have been GHB. But in fact I got this other quite clear peak, which had all of the chemical and mass spec characteristics of 1,4-butanediol," Carpenter tells C&EN.

According to a May 1996 report by the National Institutes of Health's National Toxicology Program on the metabolism, disposition, and toxicity of 1,4-butanediol, the chemical is first oxidized to γ-hydroxybutyraldehyde by alcohol dehydrogenase. The intermediate aldehyde is oxidized by aldehyde dehydrogenase to γ-hydroxybutyric acid.

"Children could have died from this had we not picked it up," says Naren Gunja, deputy medical director of Australia's Poisons Information Center. "This is something that is very serious, because γ-hydroxybutyric acid is a very potent and serious drug."

How the precursor got into the beads is a mystery. "It's not in the list of ingredients," Gunja says. "It wasn't meant to be in there."

Carpenter says one of the chemicals on the list of ingredients he received from the supplier was 1,5-pentanediol. He says there's speculation that 1,4-butanediol may have been substituted for 1,5-pentanediol.

Jean Halloran of Consumers Union, the nonprofit group that publishes "Consumer Reports," says this recall is reminiscent of the recall of pet food containing melamine earlier this year. "This is another example in the pattern that we're seeing of problems in imported products where products don't meet our basic standards of safety," she says. "I think we have a way to go before we're out of the woods on this problem."

Consumers Union and other organizations are calling for legislation for mandatory government-supervised and independent third-party certification of children's toys, Halloran notes. "You can't expect that the entity that needs to make the profit from the product can be the one that has the total responsibility for its safety, although it certainly has primary responsibility," she says.


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