Hot button issue: 'Landmines in the lounge room,' says ER doctor

Button battery risks

Consumer advocacy group, CHOICE, is calling for a crackdown on manufacturers and retailers as part of a campaign to highlight the danger of button batteries.

Unsafe products - ranging from potentially deadly button batteries to exploding hover boards - kill two people and injure 145 others a day, the chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) Rod Sims will tell consumer groups on Thursday.

Together with consumer groups and doctors, the ACCC will call for a new law - a general safety provision - that would make it illegal to sell unsafe goods in Australia.

It is not against the law in Australia to sell unsafe goods, writes Mr Sims in an opinion piece in Thursday's Herald foreshadowing the ACCC's annual congress.

One of the products Choice had concerns with.
One of the products Choice had concerns with.  Photo: Choice Australia

Unsafe products cost the economy $5 billion a year. And existing policies were not keeping families as safe as they should, Mr Sims is expected to say in his address.

Australia's product laws lag behind the European Union, Singapore, Malaysia and the UK, which have existing laws that say unsafe products can't be sold.

To highlight the problem, Choice will on Thursday release safety tests that found the button batteries in 10 out of 17 common household items were easily accessible. They included kitchen scales, book lights and a remote control.

Choice's head of policy Sarah Agar said a failure of self-regulation was putting children at risk.

Product safety laws were reactive - when a tragedy occurred a business might order a recall or someone injured may sue. "But that leaves many dangerous products on the shelves until someone else is hurt," she said.

Two children have died from ingesting button batteries. About one child a month suffers a serious injury from swallowing these smooth and shiny discs that look like lollies.

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Emergency pediatrician Ruth Barker recently treated two children who had swallowed button batteries taken from the glucometers given to their pregnant mothers to test blood sugar.

In one case, the three-year-old child swallowed a battery from a glucometer that was given to his mother when the child was in utero.

"These things are like landmines in the living room. You never know when they are going to explode in your face," Dr Barker said.

Trent swallowed a button battery and had to be treated in hospital last year.
Trent swallowed a button battery and had to be treated in hospital last year.  Photo: Wolter Peeters

She said the large 3 volt lithium batteries, responsible for most of the serious and fatal outcomes, had a 10-year shelf-life.

"They are small enough for a toddler to swallow, but big enough to get stuck on the way to the stomach and are deadly even when they stop powering your product."

In 2013, Summer Steer was the first Australian child to die after swallowing a lithium, or "button", battery, but nobody knew. Doctors sent Summer home after she was taken to hospital with "black poo". A Brisbane hospital later found a small lithium battery stuck in her oesophagus, but it was too late.

Choice's safety survey found many products powered by button batteries had safety compartments that were easy for ...
Choice's safety survey found many products powered by button batteries had safety compartments that were easy for children to open.  Photo: Choice Australia

In Sydney, Trent (last name withheld) swallowed a button battery when he was three, and was rushed to hospital. He was lucky that he could tell doctors what had happened.

Trent's mother Denise Macfadyen told the Herald on Monday that Trent- who escaped harm - was now very careful with button batteries.

Toys for children under three are legally required to have secure battery compartments, but many household items do not, said Ms Agar.

A voluntary code requires manufacturers to secure the batteries, but Ms Agar said the test results showed it was being ignored by some major brands sold by retailers like Priceline, Dymocks, David Jones and JB Hi-Fi.

About 34 products containing button batteries have been recalled, including free wrist bands given to children at this year's cricket, said the ACCC.

Button battery injuries highlighted a "perfect product safety storm", said Dr Barker who will be talking about the issue at the congress.

"They are everywhere and there are too many opportunities for duck-shoving the responsibility with little action despite knowing about the issue for 40 years," she said.

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