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Button batteries create new safety challenges

Small, coin-shaped batteries found in watches, toys, remote controls, calculators and other small electronic devices can attract young children, who can quickly put them in their mouths or ears or up their noses.

two button cells isolated on white background.,

February 14, 2019

It’s common to see people utilizing a mobile device or wearable to text, talk, work, play games, or find their way from one point to another. It’s astonishing how far technology has come in such a short period of time, and how dependent we are on these devices and – by extension – on batteries.

The first mobile phone debuted in 1973. It weighed 2.3 pounds, and you got about 30 minutes of talk time, after which you had to recharge the battery for 10 hours. Ever since then, consumers have been pushing manufacturers to deliver devices that deliver longer battery life in smaller and lighter form factors.

Many of us understand that smaller batteries can create new safety challenges, but here’s one you may not have been aware of: ingestion.

Small batteries such as button and coin cell batteries aren’t new to the market. They are commonly found in stopwatches, calculators, flashlights, remote controls, toys, and other devices.

Regrettably, they can also be found in places that they don’t belong.

Based on 2016 data collected from the 55 U.S Poison Centers within the National Poisoning Data System, there were 3,383 reported button battery ingestions that caused hundreds of injuries and four deaths. Sixty-three percent of these ingestions were by children under the age of six.

“The deaths are certainly important, but the 291 injuries reported in 2016 are also an important part of the story,” says Ken Boyce, principal engineer director with UL. Some of them were major and these injuries can cause the use of feeding tubes and similar life-changing events for the affected children.”

Related | Mission first for UL's Ken Boyce

When children – or anyone - ingests button cell batteries, the voltage from the battery will break the water in the saliva into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydroxyl compounds are generated from the oxygen’s reaction to the battery. Therefore, the saliva’s pH is raised and made into a chemical burn hazard which typically causes tissue damage. Esophageal burns, vocal cord paralysis, hearing loss, and mucosal burns - even complete perforation of membranes - may occur.

What makes button cell ingestions even more hazardous is that symptoms may not be immediately apparent or easily diagnosable in young children. Some of the presenting symptoms are vomiting, fever, poor appetite, cough, drooling, and dehydration. These symptoms can be confused with a common cold or in very young children, teething, so adults are unlikely to think that the child needs immediate medical attention.

If the ingestion is not witnessed or a child is too young to explain what he or she swallowed, the problem becomes even more complicated. The difference between a coin and a coin battery is hard to spot through x-rays, which may cause additional problems as doctors treat ingestion of batteries differently than ingestion of a regular coin. After a coin is ingested, the protocol is to monitor the patient and let the coin pass naturally. However, this delay would cause significant problems if the ingested foreign object was actually a battery.

Everyone can help to minimize the risk of button and coin cell battery ingestions. In the last several years, UL has published American National Standards for products containing button or coin cells, so purchasing new products that comply with those requirements will help protect your loved ones.

It is critical that adults take extra measures to monitor young children and make sure that button and coin cell batteries are not laying around within reach of curious children – even discharged cells that can’t power electronics any longer can still cause injury or death if swallowed.

Additionally, there needs to be a continual expansion of consumer education efforts, along with consideration of changes in packaging requirements, consumer warnings and perhaps even new battery designs. All these efforts would contribute to keeping children healthy and saving lives.

Learn More!

Interested in learning more about the risks associated with button batteries and how to help protect children from accidental ingestion? Listen to UL’s Button Battery Webinar hosted by Ken Boyce, principal engineer director at UL.

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