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Small batteries can pose big risk for children, elderly

November 30, 2016

(Daily Nonpareil, Council Bluffs, IA / Tim Johnson)
With batteries in practically everything, it’s important to keep track of what toddlers are putting in their mouths.

Button batteries – those small, disc-shaped batteries used in cameras, watches, key fobs and some remote-control units and toys – can pose a risk to anyone who swallows (or almost swallows) them, according to the National Capital Poison Center. The current from the battery triggers a chemical reaction that can burn through the esophagus or cause other serious injuries.

Last year, more than 3,100 people swallowed or almost swallowed button batteries, a press release from the National Capital Poison Center stated, citing data from the National Battery Ingestion Hotline. The batteries came from remote-controls (25 percent), lights (15 percent), flameless candles (14 percent) and various other sources. Most cases resulted from a small child putting the battery in his or her mouth.

The problem is growing in Iowa, too, said Tammy Noble, education coordinator for the Iowa Poison Control Center in Sioux City.

“Last year, we had 19 calls about button batteries,” she said. “Eleven of them were children between zero and 5, 3 were 6 through teenagers and five were adults. This year, as of Nov. 28, we’ve had 34 cases.”

Those involved 19 children ages zero to 5, four children ages 6 through teenagers and 11 adults, Noble said.

The culprit is usually a lithium cell that is 20 millimeters across – just slightly larger than a penny – or bigger, the national center’s press release stated. The battery produces three volts of electricity – twice as much as most smaller button batteries – causing damage to occur more quickly.

The object must be removed endoscopically within about two hours to prevent damage to soft tissue, said Dr. Shawn Jones, a pediatrician at Methodist Physicians Clinic, 933 E. Pierce St.

During his residency at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Jones saw a case where a child had swallowed a 25-millimeter battery from a book that had a recorded sound or voice, he said. The disc had gotten stuck in the child’s throat and had to be removed endoscopically. Because the child was taken to another facility first that could not do an endoscopic procedure, the battery could not be removed within the two-hour time frame, Jones said.

“There was an esophageal burn,” he said. “The other problem is that damage is not always immediately apparent. There can be damage that sets in months down the road, but usually within the first month.”

Less powerful batteries take longer to inflict damage but cannot be left inside someone’s body indefinitely, Jones said.

“Generally, hearing aid and small batteries, if (the patient) is not passing it or not sure, they’ll go in and try to remove that,” he said. “The big thing is, if they’re not sure, if they think the kid swallowed something but they’re not sure what, take them to the emergency room. Generally, we can determine that with an X-ray.”

Toys are usually made to discourage battery removal, Noble said.

“A lot of times with toys, they have a safety mechanism so you have to use a screwdriver to get the battery loose,” she said.

Adult cases may involve elderly individuals swallowing hearing aid batteries, Noble said.

“A lot of times, we find people with hearing aids, they can’t see too well, and they’ll think it’s a pill and swallow it,” she said.

For their own sake – and the sake of curious young grandchildren – poison center officials suggest being careful where you leave your hearing aid batteries, Noble said.

“If you take the battery out, don’t put it on your plate,” she said.

If an X-ray shows that the battery is in the stomach and still intact, a physician might wait a couple days and see if the patient has passed the battery, Noble said.

If you suspect someone has swallowed a battery or experienced some other kind of poisoning, call the 24-hour, toll-free poison hotline (800) 222-1222, the National Battery Ingestion Hotline (202) 625-3333 or take the person to the emergency room. For more information, see poison.org or iowapoison.org.

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