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Kids’ ER visits due to button batteries have more than doubled since 2010

Parents should “treat button batteries the same way they treat cleaning chemicals or the knives in the kitchen,” said a pediatric emergency doctor.
Image: Button batteries
Button batteries.Alexey Krukovsky / Getty Images/iStockphoto
/ Source: TODAY

The yearly rate of children’s battery-related emergency room visits more than doubled in the last decade compared to the previous two, a new study finds.

Researchers analyzing records from an injury database estimated that, from 2010 to 2019, children 18 and younger made more than 70,000 ER visits related to batteries that were swallowed or inserted into the mouth, the nose or the ears. That’s compared to an estimate of 68,000 during two earlier decades, 1990 through 2009, according to the report, published in Pediatrics.

“Our study shows a hidden hazard in the home: batteries, particularly button batteries,” said the study’s first author, Mark Chandler, a senior research associate at Safe Kids Worldwide, a nonprofit group working to protect kids from preventable injuries, the No. 1 cause of death for children in the U.S. “Button batteries are the small disk shaped batteries used to power an increasing number of devices, including remotes, toys, watches and key fobs.”

“A lot of devices have battery compartments that would not be considered child-resistant,” Chandler told NBC’s “TODAY” show. “That’s why it’s very important for parents and caregivers to know how to keep loose batteries and battery-powered devices up and out of the reach of children.”

Parents may not realize that the little batteries are much more dangerous for children to swallow than other small objects, said Dr. Mary Beth Howard, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

“Button batteries and lithium batteries are particularly dangerous,” said Howard, who wasn’t involved in the new research. “When they come in contact with body fluids, a current is generated, and that produces a small amount of sodium hydroxide, which is also known as lye. It’s highly corrosive, and it can burn a hole through tissue. You can imagine that a hole in the esophagus, the stomach, an ear canal or the nasal septum is a serious injury that can cause illness and even death in some cases.”

Even used-up batteries can still be hazards, Chandler said. A parent might change a device’s battery and leave the old one on a coffee table or some other surface that is easily within a toddler’s reach, thinking it’s not a problem because it’s dead, he said.

“The problem is those dead batteries contain enough residual charge that, if they are swallowed, they can cause tissue damage,” Chandler said. “One method of safer disposal of button batteries is to wrap the battery ... horizontally and vertically in two layers of tape immediately after removal from a device for disposal. This has been shown to help reduce injury in the event of an ingestion.”

The taped battery should still be removed immediately if a child swallows it, Chandler said.

Dr. Christopher Strother, the director of pediatric emergency medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, said parents should “treat button batteries the same way they treat cleaning chemicals or the knives in the kitchen,” adding: “You need to put them away so children can’t reach them, and then dispose of them correctly.

“I don’t think you can stop children from putting things in their mouths,” Strother said. “They explore the world by tasting and feeling things. It’s just a matter of making sure stuff that could be dangerous is out of their reach.”

Parents who see a child swallow a battery should give the child two of teaspoons of honey before they head off to the emergency room, Strother said. “Recent studies have shown that honey can help protect the child by coating the battery and also by neutralizing the chemical reactions that are happening.”

Strother noted that honey should not be given to children younger than a year old.

To assess whether battery-related ER visits among children had increased given the growing number of devices using smaller batteries, Chandler and his colleagues turned to data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which includes data about patients’ demographics, injury diagnoses, affected body parts and dispositions, and as well as consumer products involved.

The researchers determined that there were 70,322 battery-related emergency room visits among patients younger than 18 from 2010 to 2019, an average of 7,032 per year, or 9.5 per 100,000 children. The highest rate was among children ages 5 and younger: 24.5 per 100,000, compared to 2.2 per 100,000 in older children. The greatest number of battery-related emergency room visits was by 1-year-olds. Most patients were discharged from the emergency room, but 12% were hospitalized. 

Among the records that included the batteries’ intended use, the most frequently mentioned device was watches, at 29.7%, followed by toys and games, at 28.8%, hearing aids, at 10.4%, remote controls, at 9.8%, flashlights, at 6.4% and all other products, at 14.9%.

The rate of ER visits during the last decade — 9.5 visits per 100,000 children per year — was 2.1 times higher than what was reported for 1990 to 2009 — 4.6 per 100,000 children per year.