New battery coating could prevent injury if swallowed

New battery coating could prevent injury if swallowed

Gift-giving season is approaching, and with it comes a twinge of worry for parents of young children: The toys and gadgets that bring joy on holiday mornings often include small parts that can wind up in little ones’ mouths.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Massachusetts General Hospital say they believe their latest invention can take the danger out of at least one of those parts — the button- and coin-cell batteries that power watches, musical greeting cards, and some playthings.

Smaller than a piece of candy, the batteries typically are not a choking hazard. And with chemicals securely encapsulated, the poisoning risk is low. Many times they pass through the body with no effect.

But lodged in a child’s esophagus or stomach, they can discharge an electrical current capable of burning a hole in the lining of internal organs. Resulting injuries can be serious or even fatal. Thirty-seven deaths have been reported since 1977 — 25 since 2008.

The local research team developed a battery coating that has been shown in lab tests to deactivate an ingested battery without compromising its performance in electronic devices.

If taken to market, the coating, which resembles a thin patch, would be a significant upgrade over current safety techniques.

Despite child-resistant packaging, warning labels, and public awareness campaigns by manufacturers, emergency room visits due to battery ingestion are on the rise — from about 1,500 in 2000 to 4,800 in 2010, according to estimates by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System.

“Efforts to prevent swallowing are good, but we all know the gold standard is a safer battery,” said Toby Litovitz, medical director of the National Capital Poison Center, who has published research on battery injuries. “If this new technology works, it would be a game changer.”

Litovitz, in her research, found permanent damage can occur in just two hours and saw cases where even “dead” batteries had enough residual charge to cause harm.

A harrowing episode four years ago prompted a Peoria, Ariz., couple to start a foundation devoted to educating parents about the hazards of battery ingestion. Their 1-year-old son, Emmett, swallowed a battery he had dislodged from a DVD remote control and needed surgery to repair his badly burned esophagus.

Now 5, the boy still consumes most of his food through a feeding tube that he probably will need for the rest of his life.

“Everybody has button batteries in their house, and so few people know the dangers,” said Karla Rauch, the boy’s mother and president of the Emmett’s Fight Foundation. “I’m just really excited about this coating. I don’t know if it’s foolproof yet, but the fact that people are working on it makes us super happy.”

To prevent injuries to children like Emmett, researchers tested a rubberlike material called quantum tunneling composite, which already is used in computer touch screens. It contains metal particles that are spread too far apart to conduct electricity — until they are squeezed closer together.

On a battery, the composite acts as a layer of insulation between the electrode and a child’s tongue, throat, or gastrointestinal tract, blocking the harmful zap. In a hearing aid, remote control, or other device, however, pressures applied in the battery case are strong enough to push the metal particles together and create a closed circuit for the juice to flow.

“It’s like a switch that converts from an insulator to a conductor, based on whether it’s in the device or not,” said Jeffrey Karp, associate professor at Brigham and Women’s and coauthor of a paper about the battery coating.

Karp’s collaborators include Giovanni Traverso, a gastroenterologist at MGH; Robert Langer, associate faculty member at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science; and Bryan Laulicht, a former postdoctoral research fellow at the institute.

Karp said another year or two of testing is probably needed before coated batteries could start showing up in consumer electronics. They have been tested in pigs but not in humans and would need to prove their reliability in a wide range of electronics before manufacturers would trust them.

But battery makers said they welcomed a possible solution to a problem that keeps growing as more electronics enter circulation. In recent years, companies like Energizer and Duracell have started packaging batteries individually to make them harder for children to access and have experimented with coatings that taste bad, hoping kids will spit them out.

“Safety is a top priority, but the issue has been performance,” said Win Sakdinan, a Duracell spokesman. “So we’re always looking at new innovations.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.

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A swallowed button battery. 65 surgeries. Boy, 5, now breathes easier

A swallowed button battery. 65 surgeries. Boy, 5, now breathes easier

By Susan Donaldson James

The medical journey for 5-year-old Emmett Rauch has consumed nearly his entire life. But Emmett is now on the soccer field — and eating and talking again after enduring 65 surgeries. In 2010, when barely 1, he swallowed a nickel-sized, lithium battery from a DVD remote, burning his esophagus and closing off his airway. You may recall reading about Emmett’s fight to recover last summer when surgeons rebuilt his esophagus using part of his colon, and opened his paralyzed vocal chords. In December 2014, he had his tracheostomy tube removed, and now everyone, including Emmett, is breathing easier.

Emmett’s fight to live turned his mother, Karla Rauch, into an activist to spread awareness about the dangers of button, coin and cell batteries. Each year, more than 3,500 kids are treated in emergency rooms — and 15 have died in the last six years — after swallowing the tiny objects. Karla tells her story with the help of TODAY contributor Susan Donaldson James.

Emmett had just had his first birthday. It was a Saturday, and we noticed he had a fever and was coughing, but there had been no choking episode. The doctor said it was just a cold and had to run its course. But he was lethargic and crying every time he tried to eat.

The Rauch family

The Rauch family: Karla and Michael and their children Emmett, 5, and Ethan, 7.Today

On the following Tuesday, when Emmett coughed and blood came up, we called the pediatrician. I was freaking out. She said it sounded like croup and sent us home. But as I was walking to the car, the pediatrician came out and said, ‘I have this feeling — send him to the ER.’

They took an X-ray and when the radiologist came out, he said it was a button battery. He could even read the battery’s serial number. Emmett was rushed by ambulance to Phoenix Children’s Hospital. I remember running as I signed the consent form.

After a three-hour surgery, the surgeon said it looked like a ‘firecracker had gone off’ in Emmett’s esophagus. It was lodged a centimeter above the aorta and they couldn’t tell if he’d survive. At that moment, we fell apart. How did we not know? And where did he get the battery?

It was a scary night. His heart stopped and they revived him. The battery had come from the remote control from our DVD player. The back had just popped right off.

Emmett lived in the ICU for eight months in 2011, and there were times when we thought he would pass away. It was very humbling to watch him, because he has this fighting spirit. He stole the hearts of all the nurses and doctors with his beautiful smile.

Emmett Rauch X-ray
An X-ray of the nickel-sized button battery that Emmett Rauch swallowed. Surgeons said it went “off like a firecracker” in his esophagus.Today

He had 13 major surgeries, six of those at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. The last one, they took half his stomach to recreate his esophagus, but the tissue was so damaged it didn’t hold up. They ended up stapling the bottom half of his esophagus outside his neck for three months, then put in a gastric or feeding tube to give him food and water.

In 2012, they referred us to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center for a really rare surgery— they removed his entire esophagus and replaced it with his colon. In another operation, they took two inches from his rib cartilage to open up his vocal chords, which were paralyzed.

It’s one of the hardest things I have ever been through. But we had a really great support system and a strong faith in God. Every day, even when he was in a medical coma, we would talk positively to him: ‘Emmett, you can do this.’

Emmett as a baby at Phoenix Children's Hospital
Emmett Rauch in the ICU at Phoenix Children’s Hospital in 2010 after swallowing a button battery from a DVD remote.Today

We went online to find support and there was very little, only a paragraph by the National Poison Control Center. While we were in the hospital in Phoenix, a Hispanic boy was flown in from Yuma and he had the exact same thing, but there was a language barrier involving his family and the staff. The social worker asked if I would be comfortable talking to his mother. I broke down in tears because, I realized, this had become our mission. So we started an awareness campaign coordinating with Safe Kids and National Poison Control.

In homes, button batteries are now listed among on the top 10 items that parents should monitor to keep their kids safe. The injuries caused by swallowing them are preventable. Almost everyone has things like remotes and key fobs in their homes, and the batteries inside can be lethal.

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