National Consumer Congress 2019 held in Melbourne, 14 March 2019

The Maze, Safety Pin, Design icons

This is Part 1 of the product safety panel discussion transcript from the 2019 national consumer congress. The full audio recording is available on podcast.

The safety of products we buy and use is important to every Australian. An unsafe product can have far reaching consequences on a person’s life if something goes wrong. Most current regulations around the safety of products are specific to each product, and therefore limited. Introducing a general safety provision would place a clear requirement on all businesses not to market or supply unsafe products within the Australian market.

In this session, panelists discuss how unsafe products can impact consumers, especially disadvantaged or vulnerable ones, and the challenges of ensuring products remain safe.

Moderator – Delia Rickard, Deputy Chair, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission
Dr Ruth Barker, Pediatrician and Director, Queensland Injury Surveillance Unit
Gail Greatorex, Owner and Principal, Product Safety Solutions
Erin Turner, Director, Campaigns and Communications, CHOICE

Podcast runs for 36 minutes

Delia Rickard

Delia Rickard: Our next session is really looking at product safety. What are the sorts of issues we’re seeing out there in the community in terms of product safety? How well is it our system working at the moment? And, if it’s not working perfectly, what do we need to improve it?

We’ve got three really fantastic speakers today: Dr Ruth Barker who many of you remember having given a keynote at a previous conference and I don’t think we’ve had more positive feedback about any speaker than yours. It was passionate and unconstrained. As a regulator you think: Oh will I really ask her? What will she say about us? (That’s alright, go for it Ruth).

We’ve also got Gail Greatorex, who is a long term product safety expert, who’s worked with regulators and with industry, and really understands the sorts of systems and processes that go into having good product stewardship. Those sorts of skills are just essential if we’re going to get our system working better.

And of course we have Erin Turner from CHOICE, who is a master of most consumer issues and has taken a particularly strong stand and interest on product safety and the general product safety provision, which is something we really welcome and we have a terrific time working with CHOICE.

So the first issue we’ve got to really be talking about this morning is what each of you from your various perspectives are seeing in terms of product safety at the moment and we’re going to start with a 10 minute presentation from Ruth, then Gail and Erin.

What are the sorts of issues we’re seeing out there in the community in terms of product safety?

Dr Ruth Barker

Ruth: I’m going to speak for 10 minutes about what gets my goat, if I can have the first slide please.

So, this is humorous and I haven’t seen exactly this case, but I have seen a little boy, a two year old who was playing with his toy car and rolled his foreskin up the axle, which required quite a bit of analgesic gel and some gentle prising to get the wheels off. So I do see some funny predicaments, but what I’m going to show you next is not funny.

Audio from 2016 BBC News video

Reporter: All it took was a tiny watch battery to devastate this little girl’s health. After she swallowed the button battery, it burned through Valeria’s food and wind pipes. This is the latest of many operations at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital to try to repair the damage. For the past year, the three year old has been fed through a tube into her stomach and has a bag to collect her saliva. Her mother, Jalena, who’s Russian, says it has turned their lives upside down. She hopes Valeria will eventually recover.

Surgeon: Essentially this battery starts working in the oesophagus.

Reporter: Surgeons at Great Ormond Street Hospital are seeing one child a month with caustic soda burns caused by button batteries.

Surgeon: The most important thing is to be aware that these are extremely dangerous and should be treated essentially like a poison and be kept out of the reach of children.

Reporter: Let’s mimic what can happen when a button battery gets lodged in a child’s throat. The ham represents the delicate lining of the oesophagus and water, saliva. I’ll cover this side, but put another battery here so we can see the chemical reaction that happens.

(Later) We’ve left this for just two hours and already a huge amount of damage has been done. If I lift the button battery, you can see all this black marked area. Eventually this would have burnt its way right through the ham. Same thing with the child’s throat.

When Amari from Newcastle swallowed a button battery last year, doctors warned her mum there could be life changing injuries.

Amari’s mother: They said that her vocal chords could be damaged and she wouldn’t actually develop a voice and again they’d said that if she did pull through, she may never eat again because her oesophagus may have been too badly damaged. Just truly terrifying.

Reporter: Fortunately the two year old has made a complete recovery, but it’s a warning to parents to keep toddlers away from button batteries – Fergus Walsh, BBC news.

End of video transcript.

Ruth Barker: I saw a few people going ‘Eww’, so hands up if this is new information to you? Actually quite a few people. So why am I talking about button batteries?

Button batteries are the perfect storm in product safety because there are a ubiquitous product, used in a myriad of different common household items and they’re manufactured on a global scale where the design and manufacture is often quite remote to the supply. And actually the suppliers are often quite remote to the brand and I’ll explain this a bit in a minute. Then the products that we have that contain button batteries are regulated by different regulatory authorities, even within Australia.

This is not a new issue. You’ll notice that this paper; and this is the first death cited in Toby Litovitz’s data from the States, she’s been collating international cases in the English medical literature and English media; this paper’s dated 1977. 40 years we’ve had to work on this, which is why this is nothing to crow about.

So the child resistant packaging has been around for many, many, many years and I took this photo a year or more ago, Energizer are crowing about putting their batteries into child resistant packaging, finally, 40 years after they were first being produced. But these are the good guys.

So this is from Bunnings

This is a company that makes Power Cap, it’s a peaked cap with a light in the front and they package their own batteries that are smartly named Panther batteries, and they have a warning label on the battery package, which is what I like to call an admission.

So it’s saying: We know this product can kill your child, but we can’t be bothered putting it into child resistant packaging.

Dr Ruth Barker

So you can’t even read the whole warning label. It doesn’t have the poisons information number on it which is the most important thing you need. And I call it an admission because they haven’t even been ‘arsed’ to put it in a child resistant package. Pardon my French. So it’s saying: We know this product can kill your child, but we can’t be bothered putting it into child resistant packaging.

This is a reputable brand, Vicks, sourced from a reputable source, which is my hospital pharmacy. It clearly contains a button battery, but it doesn’t say so on the front of the packet.

On the back of the packet you’ll notice that it says this product is safer because it contains no glass. It doesn’t say that it contains an item that can kill your child. It does say down the bottom that the battery contains mercury, which is giveaway that it’s a button battery, and to dispose of it properly, whatever the hell that means.

This is where I’m heading towards brand recognition not being upfront, so it’s not clear what brand this is.

This was sourced through Books and Gifts Direct which markets directly into workplaces. And I got this in my hospital tea room. It does say that it has two of the bigger button batteries in it, and it has a warning label about don’t combine two different types of batteries. (Goodness knows what happens if you put in new and old batteries or two different types of batteries. I have no idea what ‘catastrophe’ might prevail). But below that, in smaller writing, it says this battery can kill your child and damage can occur within two hours. But again, it’s an admission because they couldn’t be buggered putting a screw into the cover on the battery compartment. This contains two big batteries and it would not pass a durability test because it’s made from cheap plastic.

I think Darth Vader makes these somewhere.

They’re produced en masse in China and they’re finger lights. I don’t know if any of you have seen this product, but parents buy them to fundraise for the P & C (Parents and Citizens Associations). My friend brought me one of these and a bag of batteries from the junior school disco where all the kids were going ‘Ooh’ with all the light sabres on their fingers, and it was raining batteries. At the end of the disco, the floor was covered in batteries. So, no brand, supplier; some person overseas; no accountability, no way to follow up and regulate these or prosecute this if an injury occurs.

This is the bracelet that was given out to kids at the cricket. So Cricket Australia is the brand associated with this, as well as Alinta energy, which is printed on the thing. It has a little pouch at the back where the battery can be accessed and a child swallowed this, which prompted a recall through Cricket Australia. The supplier, the promotions company that sold this to Cricket Australia, and the manufacturer who is probably based in China, all completely remote from what we’re trying to do in Australia.

So, in short, these products are everywhere, but it’s not clear whose job it is to do something about it. The thermometer that I showed you is regulated by the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration). So whilst the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has a strategy, the TGA is still thinking about the problem. I keep writing to them to say they need to do something about it and I get very little back. So on that note I might hand over to my colleagues here because we’re going to segue into a broader discussion.

Go the other parts of the transcript: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4