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Back in 2015 I wrote that injuries from children ingesting button batteries is the most challenging product safety problem I know of. Some good work has gone into managing the problem since then, but serious injuries are still happening and more needs to be done.

The danger

Unlike just swallowing a coin, when ingested, saliva triggers the batteries to generate an electrical current. This causes internal chemical burns which lead to tissue damage – perforating the oesophagus and causing severe bleeding and organ damage. Young children, who put small things in their mouths, are most at risk.

Recent data shows children are regularly hospitalised for internal damage after swallowing a button battery. There are not many product injuries with more dramatic consequences than this. Two Australian children have died, but this is only part of the story. Swallowing a button battery requires surgical removal, but it can leave children with severe and ongoing debility.

The data tells us that the kids are getting access to the batteries out of toys or other products, direct from the packet or just left around the house.

Action is therefore needed in several quarters.

Safety measures

Work to educate parents and carers has been substantial, as have efforts to help medical staff recognise the problem.

But given the number of products (and therefore suppliers) that use batteries, a challenge exists to manage products and the batteries themselves. Strategies by industry and government need to be revisited as a matter of priority.

Button battery retail display

My local hardware store battery display

Retail battery supplies

Major battery suppliers – the ones we all know – have implemented warning labels and child-resistant packaging. This would account for a high proportion of the retail battery market, yet it is easy to purchase lesser known battery brands without any child-resistant packaging or warnings. A short survey of my local $2 shops revealed many such brands.

Conscientious retailers are placing retail batteries above child height in stores. But I was alarmed recently to see my local hardware store with rows of non-child-resistant packs situated just above floor level.

With around 20% of injury reports involving children accessing batteries direct from the packet, I believe action needs to be taken to address this.

Electrical product regulation

Australia’s electrical products regulatory scheme is state-based and quite disjointed. However, regulations do exist that require secure battery compartments on toys and other products.

The problem is that with no central information portal in this area, it’s hard to find out about the requirements – even if you know they exist. I can’t even point you to a website link!

The ACCC has taken the lead on developing a strategy for button battery injury prevention. As the central consumer product safety information source, I would like to see the ACCC’s Product Safety Australia website feature a clear explanation of the rules that apply to supplying products that use button batteries.

Associations

Given the lack of awareness of existing regulations and other measures, there is potential for industry and business associations to do more. This should involve awareness-raising and adopting compliance strategies across their membership. I am aware that the Australian Toy Association implemented such measures some time ago.

The industry code for products that contain button batteries is currently being revised, to be re-published as guidelines in 2019. Product suppliers and associations need not wait for the new document to implement an effective strategy.