Today, young children are protected from poisons much like ancient babies were shielded from wildlife. Bottles are sanitized, blankets are kept out of cribs, and “binkies” (pacifiers) are free of BPA. But several tragedies involving batteries have brought a new danger to the forefront. Children are swallowing the small, disc-like lithium cell batteries that power remote controls, iPod speakers, and more. The New York Times reports on new data revealing the frightening price of operating some of our most common household products.

Aidan Truett of Ohio was a 13-month-old who became dangerously sick last fall. After a week of severe, flu-like symptoms, his doctors finally ordered an X-ray to look for pneumonia. What they found was disturbing — Aidan had swallowed a button battery, the disc-like lithium power source found in many items. The battery’s current caused a chemical reaction in his body, and Aidan eventually died.

Cases like this are rare, but two new reports from the medical journal Pediatrics show that 3,500 cases of button cell battery ingestion are reported each year to poison control centers. Because stronger lithium batteries have been developed, resulting deaths have also increased. The National Capital Poison Center in Washington reports that cases have increased by 3 percent since 1985. Many cases involve children, but some include the elderly. The small round batteries used to power hearing aids are often mistaken for pills. With the elderly, the batteries are more often able to pass through their larger digestive tract. This is not the case with children.

Dr. Toby Litovitz is the lead author of both reports. According to Litovitz, ingesting a lithium battery is like ingesting drain opener or lye. As Litovitz tells the NY Times, “it’s not something you want in the esophagus of your child.” The batteries numbered 2032, 2025 and 2016 are responsible for more than 90 percent of the injuries. Children’s toys are required by law to have screws holding the battery openers in place. But for other common items, battery covers often fall off easily, and this is where children get into trouble.

Litovitz urges companies to take steps to address these issues. “Our major pitch is to get the industry to do something about the battery compartment, but parents also need to know that they need to be dealing with these batteries with a lot more vigilance and keeping them out of reach of the child,” she told the NY Times. Ultimately, these tragic deaths and injuries can be avoided with broader awareness of the problem.

For further reading:

Lithium cell batteries can be deadly to children
Tiny batteries power everything from remote controls to toys, but they can be lethal if swallowed.