Stop Eating Batteries Already
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Maybe not everybody is eating batteries, but kids certainly are.
By Fiona Zublin
One of the strangest characters of the 20th century was France’s Monsieur Mangetout, born Michael Lotito, who would eat anything put in front of him except bananas, which he detested. He ate bicycles, grocery carts, chandeliers, the glass in which his beer was served and even, over the course of two years, an entire Cessna airplane. When the Guinness World Records awarded him a plaque for having the strangest diet, he ate that too.
Not every child will grow up to become a Guinness World Records holder. But children do have one thing in common with Lotito: They’ll eat absolutely anything, even things that are toxic. And that problem is only getting worse. In fact, according to a recent study published in Pediatrics …
Cases of young children eating batteries increased 150-fold from 1995 to 2015.
Batteries aren’t the most commonly eaten item (that’s coins), and they still represent just 6.8 percent of cases in which a kid ingests something they shouldn’t. But batteries were the second most common item eaten by kids who had to be admitted to a hospital (the first was coins again, and yes, it’s worse to eat a quarter than a dime).
So why are so many more kids eating batteries now than in the ’90s? It’s not that kids have gotten more reckless. Instead, you can blame the rise of adorable button batteries, which have been around for decades but are now in a lot of common electronic devices kids might find around the house. Upward of 85 percent of the kids who ate batteries ingested the button variety, which tend to be easy to fit in one’s mouth but can lodge in a kid’s throat and secrete toxic compounds.
It’s not just batteries that are on the rise: Altogether, incidents in which children younger than 6 ate something they shouldn’t have increased by more than 91 percent during the 20-year study. In 2016, more than 67,000 people called poison control to report such an event.
While these figures were collected years before COVID-19, the pandemic has likely made things even worse, says Anthony Green, chief advocacy and network officer for Safe Kids Worldwide. “It’s the nature of the home these days — with the parents at home, the kids at home, parents having to do two jobs and kids being kids,” he says. “Kids are natural detectives. And especially when they’re young, they use their fingers and they use their mouth as detective devices.” Everyone being stuck inside and parents likely distracted by work is a recipe for kids getting into trouble — and now the holiday season, with its battery-filled gifts and even greeting cards, threatens to intensify the situation still further.
Some companies are trying to do something about this: Duracell is now coating its button batteries with a compound that tastes bitter to discourage children from eating them — much as Nintendo has been doing since 2017 with its little Switch cartridges. One wonders though how much effect this will have — it’s not like batteries traditionally taste good, and if the Tide Pod challenge taught us anything, it’s that people will eat stuff that tastes disgusting once they’re committed to the exercise. Another study from 2010 found that not only are battery ingestions increasing, but those incidents are becoming more likely to end in death or a severe medical event, partly because of a trend toward higher-voltage lithium cells.
Of course, any such study is limited. Because the data used here was sourced from emergency departments, it didn’t capture cases where a child swallowed something and went to see their pediatrician, or where they never went to see a doctor at all. Still, this isn’t just a case of modern parents having no chill when it comes to their kids swallowing something. Button batteries can also cause longer-lasting gastric damage if they’re not removed swiftly — within 12 hours, according to researchers.
Parents can try to mitigate the situation, Green says, by making sure any batteries or devices containing batteries are out of the reach of kids. While regulation on things like child-resistant packaging can help, he says, it has to work in concert with individual awareness. Of course, you could always try the experiment he attributes to one children’s hospital, which illustrated the danger of batteries to children by sticking a button battery on a piece of baloney and watching as the meat blackened and disintegrated around it.