Lithium Batteries Pose Deadly Threat to Kids

Swallowing small lithium batteries can cause serious complications or death.

BySusan Schwartz, Felicia Biberica and Alicia Tejada
December 04, 2010, 9:26 PM

Dec. 5, 2010— -- Hazel Donovan was a happy, healthy 9-month-old when she developed cold symptoms and wheezing that just wouldn't go away. Her mother quickly turned to her pediatricians.

"They said it's probably croup, it's very common. She was always wheezing," her mother Amanda Donovan said.

"We took her to the Emergency Department," she said. "They gave her nebulizers. They admitted her overnight, but she just wasn't improving. They discharged her the next morning and basically told us that it would just take time to go away."

But Amanda Donovan returned to her local ER that night when her daughter stopped breathing while she was feeding her dinner.

Doctors did an X-ray and saw what they thought was a nickel in the baby's esophagus. Hazel was in grave condition.

She was rushed to Children's Hospital in Boston and when doctors looked more closely at the X-ray they say it wasn't a nickel at all. It was a small lithium battery.

"They could see the serial number on it," Amanda Donovan said. "It was on the x-ray."

They're common in everyday objects all around us, in gadgets like remote controls, watches, calculators, thermometers, toys and greeting cards. Nickel sized lithium batteries, or button batteries are often accidentally ingested by young children and they can be deadly.

Reports of children ingesting these "button batteries" have increased. More than 35,000 button battery cases are reported to poison control centers annually and 13 have been identified as the cause of death.

Within as little as two hours, after the round 20-25mm battery enters the body, it can cause severe tissue damage and other serious complications.

When a lithium battery becomes lodged in the body, it gives off an electrical current. Once the electric charge is set off, it reacts with the surrounding skin, producing a strong acid similar to that found in home drain opener.

"It can cause a hole from the esophagus into the trachea or even into important blood vessels like the aorta. And in children where this is happening, they can lose a lot of blood and potentially, die," said Dr. Lois Lee, an emergency room physician at the Children's Hospital in Boston.

More than 80 kids have permanent damage from ingesting button batteries. The chemical reaction triggered by the batteries can damage vocal cords leaving children with a life-long whisper. Damage to the intestinal tract means some children require feeding tubes and even multiple surgeries.

The Donovan family says they were lucky. The lithium battery Hazel swallowed was removed by surgeons just in time.

However, she still has some difficulty swallowing and may need more surgery to remove scar tissue that has built up in her esophagus.

The American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Injury says the problem is growing.

Dr. Garry Gardner of the AAP told a congressional committee last week that his group is "interested in working with the Consumer Products Safety Commission and industry to require secure closures for devices that need button batteries as well as appropriate packaging."

In the meantime, parents are urged to be mindful this holiday season when purchasing electronics.

Emergency physicians suggest parents be on the lookout for the batteries and get down on the floor at their child's level and look around to make sure they aren't lying around the house.

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