MONDAY, Nov. 3, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers have developed a coating for button batteries to prevent them from causing chemical burns in the digestive tract if they're swallowed by children.
Button batteries are used to power a wide range of devices such as toys, calculators and hearing aids. About 5 billion of these batteries are produced every year, according to the researchers. If children swallow these batteries, they can suffer burns that cause permanent damage to the esophagus, tears in the digestive tract and even death, the researchers explained.
The new coating prevents the batteries from conducting electricity if they're swallowed. Animal tests showed that the batteries with the coating caused no gastrointestinal tract damage.
The research was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The study appears in the Nov. 3 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"We are all very pleased that our studies have shown that these new batteries we created have the potential to greatly improve safety due to accidental ingestion for the thousands of patients every year who inadvertently swallow electric components in toys or other entities," study co-senior author Robert Langer, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an MIT news release.
Each year, nearly 4,000 children in the United States are taken to emergency rooms after swallowing button batteries.
When batteries are swallowed, they interact with water or saliva and create an electric current that produces hydroxide, which damages tissue. Serious injury can occur within a few hours.
"Disc batteries in the esophagus require [emergency] endoscopic removal," study co-lead author Giovanni Traverso, a research fellow at MIT's Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, said in the news release.
"This represents a gastrointestinal emergency, given that tissue damage starts as soon as the battery is in contact with the tissue, generating an electric current [and] leading to a chemical burn," Traverso explained.
The researchers plan to test the coating on lithium and other types of batteries.
They also noted that since the battery coating is waterproof, it could be used to make batteries weather-resistant and more suitable for outdoor use.
Safe Kids Worldwide has more about children and batteries.