This piece was originally published in the May 2016 issue of ei, the magazine of the electroindustry.
By Jonathan Stewart, Government Relations Manager, NEMA
Lithium coin batteries are ubiquitous in today’s consumer-centric America. Everything from your wrist watch to your garage door opener—not to mention the seemingly endless variety of electronic toys for grown-ups and kids alike—might run on coin cells. The number grows each year—a good trend for the consumer whose life is becoming more integrated with (and dare I say dependent on?) portable electronic devices.
Lithium coin batteries come in various sizes. More than 95 percent measure 20 mm, which is a little smaller than a quarter, fitting nicely into smaller electronics devices. While an advantage in some applications, the smaller size poses a hazard for young children who put them in their mouths. When swallowed, the cells usually pass through the digestive tract without incident.
Occasionally, however, the lithium coin batteries can lodge in the esophagus. In as little as 30 minutes, the battery voltage begins to break down water molecules in the saliva, leading to a high pH substance formation that can damage esophageal tissue.
From the time when NEMA member companies became aware of the hazard, they engaged in a five-pronged approach to mitigate lithium coin ingestion: education/outreach, battery compartment design, warning copy, packaging, and battery design. Thanks in part to these efforts, the number of reported incidents has decreased since 2010, even as the number of coin cells distributed dramatically increased over the same period.
Over the last 18 months, NEMA members have been involved in revising the industry standard for lithium battery safety to include labeling and packaging requirements. As part of this effort, NEMA developed a new icon that will appear on the blister card and engraved on lithium coin batteries and will more clearly convey (to supervising adults) the presence of an ingestion hazard for children.
As an American consumer, I certainly appreciate the effort and innovation that went into developing lithium coin cell technology. But as an American parent, I appreciate even more the industry efforts to make the batteries safer.