Button batteries: the most challenging product safety problem ever?

The Maze, Safety Pin, Design icons

  • Attractive to children, easy to swallow
  • Deadly within days, if not hours
  • Found in a staggering array of products
  • Difficult to completely isolate from children
  • Hard to detect if swallowed
  • Symptoms similar to other ailments
  • Severe non-fatal injuries

It’s a ‘perfect storm’

The danger

Coin sized lithium batteries, known as button batteries, are powering our ever expanding range of electronic gadgets. And increasingly they also power products that have never before had electronic capacity – from greeting cards to pens to clothing.

But there’s a hidden danger in these harmless looking little batteries. 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. Young children, who put small things in their mouths, are most at risk.

It’s hard for most of us to recognise just how strong the effect can be. Several videos have been produced to replicate the effect. In this one a button battery is placed inside a sausage and takes very little time to do damage:

Australian incidents

A number of children in Australia have died or sustained severe and ongoing injuries after swallowing a button battery. In 2013 Summer Steer was just four years old when she swallowed a battery which got stuck in her oesophagus. Summer died days after the ingestion because medical consultations failed to recognise the cause of her symptoms.

In 2010 four-month-old Oscar swallowed a 1 cm battery. Just a 14-hour delay in removing the battery resulted in spinal damage and the infant spent eight months in a full-body cast. Now five years old, Oscar can walk but he will have severe restriction of movement for the rest of his life as he is unable to fully raise his head.

In 2015 Isabella Rees was only 14 months old and died after ingesting a button battery. The coroner is still investigating this fatality.

One year old Hunter survived, but his recovery involved multiple operations and much anguish over many months. His story has been captured on video:

How to fix this???

This is a situation that needs everyone’s attention and everyone to act.

The ACCC’s product safety branch and its state government colleagues have been urgently consulting both nationally and overseas and exploring possible strategies.

Being a multi-layered problem, it requires a multi-layered approach. Action is being taken by and with battery manufacturers and retailers; and battery disposal systems; with product manufacturers to make battery compartments child-resistant; with GPs and hospitals to recognise potential cases and act quickly; and with all consumers to minimise the chance of young children getting access to button batteries.

What you can do

Product suppliers

If you’re a product supplier check your products for button battery accessibility, especially in children’s products. Already there have been recalls including a drink cup and pens.

And include battery safety information on your website and social media pages.

Parents and all other consumers

Help spread the word on the dangers.

Download the fact card and follow the instructions. There’s also a poster to print. Share these resources online.

And do it more than once. There’s new parents all the time who won’t realise the dangers.

Button battery danger

Media release on this topic – 3 November 2015

August 2015 update: An industry code has now been published – See Button battery products – new industry code