Button batteries send about 20 kids to hospital in Australia each week

by | Jun 12, 2023 | News and Media

Courtesy ABC News : Hannah Walsh

Small, shiny button batteries are easy to find in Australian homes, and they have caused immeasurable pain to families across the country. 

About 20 children present to hospital emergency departments each week suspected of having swallowed or inserted a button battery. 

That’s despite there being three deaths in the past decade, and a world-first mandatory safety standard being introduced in Australia.

The question of what to do about the common batteries and how to reduce the risk they pose to children is divisive.

Is it as simple as increased parent vigilance or is it a product that should be boycotted altogether?

In June last year, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) began enforcing regulation to ensure products containing the batteries were durable, had child-resistant features and adequate safety warnings.

Already this year, 20 products have been recalled.

The Reject Shop and Dusk recently became the first retailers to be issued infringement notices by the ACCC and fined a total of nearly $240,000 for transgressions.

Parents who’ve devoted years to raising awareness about the dangers of button batteries are fed up.

Mandatory standard ‘not working’

In June 2013, Andrea Shoesmith’s bright and bubbly four-year-old daughter, Summer Steer, fell ill with symptoms of a sore stomach, high temperature and black bowel movements.

Almost three weeks later, she became the first child in Australia to die from swallowing a button battery.

“It was quite painful because I was judged and I had the hospital, the doctors and the ambulance saying I’d done something wrong, which I hadn’t,” Andrea Shoesmith said.

She believes her little girl picked one up in a public park.

“The police searched my house, my mother’s house, they searched the kindy and there was nothing in there that would contain a button battery,” Ms Shoesmith said.

“She was so beautiful … [with the] biggest blue eyes … [she was] so fun and I miss her so much.”

Two years after Summer’s death, 14-month-old Isabella Rees died from the same cause.

The two mothers have spent the past decade campaigning to stop it happening to another family.

It causes Ms Shoesmith a lot of stress when she hears of another child hospitalised for the same reason her daughter died.

She said the mandatory safety standard wasn’t working because “cheap companies don’t care” and fines were simply “change in their pocket”.

“We need to get rid of them. They are not safe. I’ve always said that they are like a loaded gun,” she said.

Redesign needed

Summer Steer’s death was the first time the Australian public saw just how dangerous the tiny batteries could be.

Emergency paediatrician and president of Kidsafe Queensland, Ruth Barker, said it was then, after the young girl died, that button batteries became a priority topic.

In March this year, the organisation called for a consumer boycott after one-year-old Amity Buchanan spent two nights in an induced coma having spent 28 hours with a button battery burning in her throat.

“The message really is … do you need these products?” Dr Barker said.

“Could the product break if you drop it, does it have some sort of screw closure or complex mechanism that your average three-year-old couldn’t get into?”

Dr Barker said there were still cases where cheap products had broken, and a child had accessed a battery.

“I’ve seen one child who their family dropped the car keys the day before, the child ate the battery, the family put the car key back together and didn’t realise the battery was missing until they tried to start the car the next day,” she said.

“At the end of the day the only thing that is going to get industry to consider redesigning this product is if the product isn’t selling.

“There are some companies that are coming up with ideas and we really need industry to embrace this so that they are actually designing a button battery that is safer rather than just putting the onus on parents to be more vigilant.”

Kidsafe Queensland has also worked with the battery recycling industry to raise awareness about how to safely dispose of button batteries. 

“Get sticky tape and tape across the battery,” Dr Barker said. 

“It makes it more difficult for kids to swallow and what it does is it insulates the electrodes so that if they did swallow it, it doesn’t cause the same damage. 

“Also in the recycling stream or the waste stream it doesn’t trigger fires.”

What do mums think?

At a mums and bubs playgroup in North Queensland, several first-time mothers said they hadn’t thought of dangers posed by button batteries until having children. 

“It’s definitely something in the back of my mind, like when he starts to move … so [I] definitely need to know a bit more about it I suppose. I do try and stay away from them but happy to still use them.” — Rhiannan Bezzina

“We’ve been really careful that when we did go through and childproof our house that we put all kind of battery products either away on top shelves or pretty much just got rid of them completely.” — Corrina Haupt

“It’s still not very safe … as soon as you open them up, they’ve generally got two batteries in them and [you] only need to take one out and the other one is in that packaging and it’s now an open package.

“I think it’s terrifying because you’re always with them, you’re always watching them but there will be moments you’re doing other things and you wonder would I realise straight away? Would I realise quick enough before something worse would happen?” — Rebecca Moriarty

A spokesperson for the ACCC said it’s currently working with state and territory regulators to conduct surveillance across the country to identify instances of non-compliance.

“Compliance with the button battery safety standards and strengthening product safety online are ACCC Product Safety Priorities.”

For Andrea Shoesmith, it’s a fight she’s not willing to give up yet.

“My son said to me last night, ‘This is destroying you, Mum, just stop’ and I said, ‘I will never stop because I would have done the same for you’.”

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