A new study in the US has found that the number of ER visits by children under the age of 18 to deal with battery-related emergencies has doubled in the last two decades. This figure includes, but is not limited to, incidences of swallowing of button batteries, which have also doubled over the period.

The study, by researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, is published in a 14 May early online issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Senior author Dr. Gary Smith is director of the Center. He told the press:

"We live in a world designed by adults for the convenience of adults, and the safety of children is often not considered."

Batteries are everywhere in our technology-dominated world, including a high proportion of button batteries, those deceptively innocent-looking candy-sized bright shiny objects that attract the attention of curious kids but which can cause them serious harm when swallowed.

For their study, the researchers used data from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS). The system collects nationwide data on hospital emergency department cases where patients are treated for consumer product-related and sports and recreation-related injuries.

Smith and colleagues found that across the US, the number of battery-related emergency department visits by the under-18s more than doubled between 1990 and 2009, jumping from 2,591 to over 5,525 during the period.

During that time, the number of batteries swallowed by children, also doubled.

The study shows that three-quarters of kids' battery-related ER visits were by children aged 5 and under, and of these, one-year-olds were the most frequent visitors.

In some cases, the records show what the batteries were used for. Where such use was recorded, it appears that only 29% of the kids' ER visits involved batteries used in toys and games: most of them were for products not intended for children, such as watches (14%), calculators (12%), flashlights (9%) and remote controls (6%).

Among cases that recorded what type of battery was involved, 84% showed they were button batteries.

Smith, who is also a professor of pediatrics at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, said our homes are full of products with easily-accessible battery compartments.

Yet, he urged, "many of the serious and sometimes fatal injuries that occur when children are able to easily access button batteries in common household products", could be prevented with a few simple changes to product design, and stronger manufacturing standards, not just of toys but of products not intended for young children.

Recent reports suggest the number of fatal and severe cases of children swallowing button batteries is increasing in the US. This rise parallels a similar growth in the use of 3-volt, 20-millimeter, lithium button batteries in products kept in homes.

The danger is not just of obstruction, but also if a battery lodges in the trachea or the esophagus it can cause an electrical current that burns a hole in the surrounding tissue.

"The increased prevalence of the higher voltage 20-mm lithium batteries is concerning because it coincides with an alarming 113 percent increase in battery ingestions and insertions by young children," said Smith.

"When a button battery is swallowed and gets caught in a child's esophagus, serious, even fatal injuries can occur in less than two hours," he warned.

Battery Safety Advice

The Nationwide Children's Hospital suggests parents and carers take the following steps to stop children getting hold of batteries and causing themselves harm:
  • Use tape to keep the battery compartment of all houselhold devices safely shut.

  • Store all removable products wih batteries, and any spare or loose batteries, well out of reach of little fingers.

  • Be especially vigilant of these precautions when your child visits other homes.
The Hospital also urges manufacturers to ensure packaging for products with batteries, and batteries themselves, is child-resistant.

They recommend battery compartments be designed so you have to use a screwdriver to open them, or that they be secured with a child-resistant lock. And this should be regardless of whether the products are intended for child use or not.

You should seek medical attention immediately if you think your child may have swallowed a button battery. An x-ray will soon establish if it is stuck in the esophagus.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD