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Troubling Trend: More Kids Under 6 Taken to ERs After Swallowing Objects

The number of children under the age of 6 rushed to ERs after swallowing small objects — especially such items as button batteries, coins and toy pieces — nearly doubled over two decades, according to a new study.

More than 759,000 children swallowed objects and were taken to hospital emergency departments over the 20-year study period, 1995 to 2015. The annual rate soared from 9.5 of every 10,000 children in 1995 to 18 of every 10,000 in 2015, a jump of more than 90 percent, according to the study, published in the journal Pediatrics [1].

Researchers used the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, operated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission [2] (CPSC), to determine the number of children under the age of 6 who were seen in ERs across the U.S. after swallowing an object.

Coins — mostly pennies — were the most commonly swallowed object, followed by small toys (marbles led the list) or pieces of larger toys, jewelry and batteries. The increase of toys or electronic devices that use the tiny, round “button” batteries were near the top of the list. As small as they are, button batteries can become lodged in the esophagus and cause a burn-type injury which can lead to tissue damage and perforation.

Boys were more likely to swallow objects than girls: 53 percent versus 47 percent. Boys were also more likely to swallow screws and nails. Girls were more likely to swallow jewelry and hair products.

“We see items on a shelf and we assume that if it’s in a store, it must be safe. But that’s not always the case,” said Joseph Scott, M.D. [3], chair and medical director of emergency medicine at West Kendall Baptist Hospital [4].

The CPSC, along with other organizations, such as Kids In Danger and the Toy Association urges consumers to follow age recommendations on packaging. Despite year-round toy safety campaigns against unsafe toys and constant monitoring, products are sold that can be potentially dangers to small children if swallowed.

Of the 251,700 estimated ER-treated injuries associated with toys in 2017, 73 percent (184,000) were sustained by children younger than 15 years of age; 69 percent (174,300) involved kids 12 years or younger; and 36 percent (89,800) affected children younger than 5 years of age.

“Be vigilant and don’t assume a toy is safe,” Dr. Scott advised. “Try to anticipate what could go wrong. We don’t want to assume the worst all the time, and we want our children to have fun, but you have to realize there is always a risk.”

The following tips for parents are from the CPSC and other public interest groups: