Environment & Engineering

Saving babies from swallowing batteries

Published Mar 8, 2019

It’s an extremely serious and widespread problem—children being injured (sometimes fatally) as a result of inhaling or swallowing “button” batteries. However, an innovative researcher has created a way to deter and detect accidental battery cell ingestion, and Viclink is helping to bring his idea to market where it can potentially save the lives of babies and young children all over the world.

Jeongbin Ok, senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Design, had read articles about the serious problem of battery ingestion by young children. Every year around 20 babies or children are hospitalised at Starship Hospital because of it, with that figure rising to around 3,000 in the USA. 

“The problem is that parents don’t always know that ingestion has occurred, because the batteries are so small and young children can’t communicate that they have swallowed something,” says Jeongbin, who has a research background in Industrial Design and Chemical Engineering. “But unless action is taken quickly, battery ingestion can serious tissue damage and even fatalities within two hours of a child swallowing a battery.” 

A solution came to Jeongbin as he was walking down the road. He saw a child with something red—probably tomato sauce–all over his face. The colour and liquid were obvious and would have been clear to the child’s parents, so Jeongbin wondered if he could create a similar effect by adding something to batteries. 

He was able to create a coating for button battery cells that could both deter children from swallowing batteries and alert parents if a battery had been ingested. 

“The coating discourages children from swallowing the batteries because the coating tastes terrible—like a combination of all the bad tastes you can imagine,” Jeongbin says. “It also alerts parents, as when the child puts the battery in their mouth a compound in the coating turns their saliva blue. The coating is only activated by saliva.” 

The coating was originally red, but red saliva looked too much like blood and would have been too shocking for parents, Jeongbin says. After extensive research, they settled on blue dye as the most effective colour. 

“The development of this coating, including picking the colour, has been a long process that has involved many people,” Jeongbin says. “I’ve worked with Viclink, the University’s commercialisation arm, the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment, Starship Hospital, Safekids NZ, and Energizer over the last eight years to test and develop this coating.” 

The coating can either be applied to batteries during the manufacturing process or can be applied to already existing batteries using a pen applicator. 

Viclink helped Jeongbin to acquire patents for the invention in the USA, the European Union, and in Japan, and to further develop and refine the solution. Next steps involve developing the coating further and preparing it for use on commercially-produced batteries.

Jeongbin’s invention is currently very topical with Minister of Commerce and Consumer Affairs Kris Faafoi last year announcing a new Product Safety Policy Statement (PSPS). This statement gives the battery industry the opportunity to make button battery products safer through improving packaging, display, and disposal, and encourage innovation in battery safety. 

“I hope to see mass production of this coating and to see it become an industry standard,” Jeongbin says. “It has always been my dream to help save lives, and I hope this coating can play one small part in doing so with potentially global implications for the safety of children.” 

Watch the Seven Sharp interview with Jeongbin.