Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 6, 2020.
As a parent, you are constantly on high alert for things or situations that could harm your child. You dutifully cut their food into small pieces so they don’t choke, put plugs in every light socket in the house, and you try to keep dangerous items out of reach.
Sometimes, even when you do everything right, your child can still get hurt. In most cases, all they end up with is a small bump or a scrape. Other times, they end up with something more unexpected- and more serious.
This is what happened to Eden Strong. Despite her best efforts to keep his bath toys clean, her two-year-old son Baylor nearly lost his vision after one of them gave him a bacterial infection.
According to Strong, the nanny was giving Baylor a bath when he accidentally squirted some water into his eye from one of his rubber bath toys. Shortly after, his eye began turning pink .
Strong said she had seen posts where other moms had cut open their child’s bath toys and revealed significant amounts of mold inside.
“I knew water could get trapped in tub toys, particularly the rubber ones designed to squirt water,” she said. “So I squeezed them out after each bath, cleaned them out every few weeks with a bleach water solution, and regularly held them up to the light to look for mold.” 
What she didn’t realize is that even with regular cleaning bacteria can still build up inside bath toys. This is because they never fully dry. Sometimes, however, this bacteria can be invisible to the naked eye.
Initially, doctors told Strong and her husband that their son had pinkeye. His eye, however, continued to worsen.
“Now his eye was actually coming out from between his eyelids and I just remember screaming at my husband to call 911 or to get the car,” she said .
The doctors insisted on performing a CT scan. Strong was hesitant to expose her young son to that much radiation, but she agreed. The scan revealed that he had severe cellulitis.
“That could spread to his brain. And I just never would have thought that a bathtub toy could have done something like this,” Strong said 
Thankfully, Baylor has made a full recovery.
Read: How to Protect Your Baby from Positional Asphyxia in a Car Seat
Are Bath Toys Safe?
According to Frederik Hammes, a microbiologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, the topic is severely understudied. In 2018, he led a research team that sampled nineteen bath toys. The team collected them from five different households.
The researchers cut each toy open and tested what they found on the inside. They found an average of 9.5 million cells of bacteria and fungi per square centimeter of each toy. Some of them had up to twenty million cells.
Most of the toys contained the organism Pseudomonas aeruginosa. This bacterium is known to cause infections in people who have compromised immune systems. The results did not surprise Michael David, assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania Department of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases.
“There is likely to be an accumulation of fungi and bacteria inside of bath toys,” he said. “And some of these bacterial and fungal species are associated with human infections.” 
Bath toys that collect standing water and sit in poorly-ventilated bathrooms are the perfect environment in which mold spores can grow and thrive. That being said, David reassures parents that the issue is under-studied for a good reason: it’s extremely rare.
David himself, an infectious disease specialist, has never seen a healthy person infected by mold from a bath toy or children’s item. He says no one has explored the subject much because it hasn’t really come up as a problem.
Susan Huang is the medical director for epidemiology and infection prevention at the University of California at Irvine School of Medicine. She’s also the mother of two, and she agrees with David.
“Healthy children have plenty of good immune function that allows them to breathe mold spores in and handle it, even eat some of it by accident,” she said. “Nothing really happens – other than people being somewhat disgusted.” 
Of course, there are some exceptions. Children with compromised immune systems due to cancer or an immune defect are at a greater risk of infection from mold. So are those with chronic lung or sinus infections, or those who have uncontrolled diabetes.
Inhaling mold can also trigger allergies or asthma, especially in children. For this reason, you should always do your best to minimize the amount of mold your children come into contact with.
How to Keep Your Kids Safe
The good news is, as parents there’s a lot you can do to keep large amounts of mold out of your kids’ lives. You can sterilize bottles in boiling water and squeeze rubber ducks to let the water out. You can hang bath mats, and any other damp bathroom item up to dry. If you want, you can seal the holes in bath toys with a hot glue gun, or cut the hole larger for easier cleaning.
Maureen Lichtveld is the chair of the global environmental health sciences department at Tulane University ‘s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans. She says that while there’s no such thing as a sterile environment, anything we can do to keep our children safe, we should. That said, parents don’t need to panic.
“I will of course clean mold if I see it at the bottom of the bath mat, because of how it looks,” Huang said. “But I know it won’t hurt my kids.” 
Read: Children Need Structure More Than Warmth, Says Child Psychologist
What are some the best way to keep your kids’ bath toys clean?
1. Boil the toys
Boil the toys in hot water and squeeze out the water with a pair of tongs. Let them cool and dry thoroughly.
2. Bleach them
Mix ¾ cup of bleach with one gallon of water. Soak the toys overnight, then rinse them thoroughly with water. Allow to dry completely.
3. Use vinegar
Mix one gallon of water with half a cup of white vinegar. Soak the toys in the solution for about one hour, scrub them to remove the mold, then allow them to air dry.
4. Put them in the wash
Running the toys through the dishwasher can sanitize and kill any gunk growing on the outside or inside. Again, make sure they fully dry after they’re done.
5. Store them properly
Make sure you keep the toys on a tray or rack that will allow the toys to drain and dry properly between use. Any way you can dry them out will prevent mold from forming in the first place .
Keep Reading: How Harmful Is Black Mold? One Woman’s Symptoms Highlight the Potential Dangers
- “Toddler catches bacterial infection after squirting eye with water from bath toy” KVUE. September 29, 2020.
- “Mom Warns Parents After Her Toddler Nearly Lost His Eyesight From Bacteria in a Bath Toy” Parents. October 1, 2020.
- “To panic or not to panic: There’s mold in your kids’ bath toys” Chicago Tribune. January 29, 2019
- “How to Clean Bath Toys & Prevent Mold” The Maids. October 2020.