23 October 2020

Another button battery tragedy

Clinical Paediatrics

A Gold Coast girl who swallowed a button battery in July is the third child to die in less than a decade from ingesting the tiny but deadly device.

It’s a mishap that can occur very easily, and while the outcomes can be horrifying, the initial non-specific symptoms make it hard for medical practitioners to diagnose a swallowed battery if this is not already suspected.

Lorraine and David Conway have shared the story of their daughter Brittney’s death and called on governments to introduce regulations to protect children from the dangerous good found in common household items.

The three-year-old died in the Queensland Children’s Hospital on July 28 from injuries she sustained from a battery three weeks earlier, the couple told the ABC on Friday.

Each week, 20 children present to Australian emergency departments suspected of swallowing a button battery or putting it in their nose or ear.

Button batteries can be found in everything from hearing aids to thermometers, in television remotes, baking scales, calculators, watches and musical birthday cards.

Ms Conway sought medical attention from general practitioners and hospital doctors after Brittney complained of a sore throat and chest pains and vomited repeatedly, but was told the little girl had a virus.

She later rushed her daughter to hospital where she went through multiple surgeries after finding her in bed unconscious and in a pool of blood.

Health experts and child injury advocates have persistently lobbied for actions to protect children from serious injury or even death caused by button batteries.

“Kids pick up batteries loose, from battery packaging, from the product, when the product breaks, when the battery compartment breaks, on the ground or from the bin,” KidSafe Queensland president and emergency paediatrician Dr Ruth Barker told The Medical Republic.

She is warning parents and GPs to be aware of the subtle signs a child has swallowed or pushed a button up their nose or into their ear.

As little as 1.2 volts can lead to liquefactive necrosis that eats away at tissue even after the battery has been removed.

Dr Barker has shared these early signs to look for:

  • Initially gagging or choking;
  • When batteries become lodged, they can cause drooling, regurgitation (food that appears unchanged and doesn’t smell of vomit is a big clue), and less eating;
  • Once a chemical reaction has started there may be stridor, chest pain and/or grunting, upper GI bleeding and epistaxis (what looks or sounds like epistaxis can be blood vomited through the nose).

What to do:

  • If there is suspicion a child has ingested a button battery, refer for an urgent X-ray from neck to bottom.
  • Know where your nearest button battery removal service is and have a plan of who to call.
  • For urgent 24/7 expert advice, phone the Poison Information Centre on 13 11 26.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is investigating button battery safety and the products they’re found in.

The ACCC is looking at potential market failure in the supply of consumer products and whether laws are needed to address hazards.

A submission to the ACCC written by Dr Barker with co-signatories described button batteries as “living room landmines”, and said preventing unintended access required holistic strategies with the input of consumers, government and industry.

“They are everywhere and there are too many opportunities for duck-shoving the responsibility with little action despite knowing about the issue for 40 years,” the submission said.

“It is time to act.”

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