Tiny, lithium button cells are posing a growing threat to curious children who put them in their mouths and swallow them. Emergency rooms around the country are seeing an uptick in the number of disk battery ingestions, some of them fatal.
"It's particularly dangerous if it gets lodged in the esophagus," said Dr. Sabrina Perkins with Methodist Hospital. "That's the worry."
That's exactly what happened to little Emmett Rauch, of Peoria, Ariz.
He swallowed the shiny lithium button cell that popped out of the remote control he was playing with, his mother unaware at the time.
After three years, some 40 surgeries and immeasurable angst, his parents are on a mission to warn others of the danger.
"A battery will start to burn the tissue of the esophagus within two hours of ingestion," Karla Rauch, Emmett's mother, said. "We believe Emmett's was there for three days."
In recent years 17 young children have died swallowing lithium button cells.
They're found in all sorts of common gadgets, like remote controls, talking books, cameras, hearing aids, flashing necklaces, key fobs, thermometers and talking greeting cards
"Children tend to get into things pretty quick, and usually it's kind of un-witnessed," said Dr. Perkins.
The vast majority pass through the intestines, but those that get lodged in the throat can cause severe damage, even death.
Placing a three-volt lithium cell inside a hot dog demonstrates how quickly the chemical burn occurs. Within two minutes, a sear can be seen on the hot dog. Within two hours the damage is much more noticeable, and within three days the meat is burned and the battery is corroded.
"It's the perforation," Dr. Perkins said. "It's the battery kind of eroding through the esophageal wall or even the aorta. That's going to put them at (the) highest risk."
By federal law batteries in toys can't be accessible to small children. The compartments must be secure and require a tool like a screwdriver to open them. That is not the case for gadgets not intended for young children, like remote controls.
Battery manufacturers have taken voluntary action. Energizer now makes its packaging difficult to open and puts warning labels on the actual battery so parents have to peel it off.
The Rauch family was unaware of the danger in their home. Now they are keenly aware as Emmett has endured dozens of surgeries to replace his esophagus. He has even had to relearn how to swallow.
When children swallow the batteries they don't necessarily choke, so parents don't know there's a problem.
Often the symptoms are crankiness, vomiting and fever, so it can be difficult to diagnose.
Prevention is key. Child safety experts encourage parents to make sure battery compartments are secure and to keep such devices out of a child's reach.
If ingestion is suspected, parents should get the child to an emergency room to be evaluated, according to Dr. Perkins.