More action is needed to promote battery safety, according to the mums of two girls who died after swallowing button batteries.
The women are pleading with the Federal Government to make changes to the law to stop more preventable deaths.
Every week in Australia around 20 children present to the hospital emergency department due to suspected button battery ingestion or insertion (for example, getting them stuck in ears or nose).
It’s a statistic that heartbroken mothers Andrea Shoesmith and Allison Rees say is unacceptable. They want more action taken to promote button battery safety. As such, the mums are sharing their tragic stories with members of parliament. They hope to improve safety standards, which manufacturers are largely ignoring.
Tragic death sparks action
Allison’s 14-month-old daughter, Isabella, swallowed a button battery in 2015. She later died as a result of the trauma it caused to her oesophagus.
Since I lost Bella four years ago there have been countless injuries to children because of button batteries. Some can’t eat, some have breathing injuries, others are paralysed. Something should have been done a lot earlier,” – Allison says.
The coroner has called on the health ministers, but will they listen? I’d really love the Government to step up on [the issue of button battery safety] and do something.”
Indeed, just three months after Bella died, Allison visits her local shopping centre with her husband and four-year-old son.
In one of the stores, she notices an entire column filled top to bottom with batteries. In fact, the button batteries are placed at floor height.
Unsurprisingly, Allison is overcome by anxiety and immediately heads home. But later she decides to channel her fear into action.
She contacts the department store’s head office and expresses concern at the way the button batteries are on display at children’s height, making them easily accessible.
At the time, the packaging had a perforated back so the batteries were so easy for kids to access. I called the company’s director and they took it really seriously,” – she explains.
From that day Allison and her family realise they have to fight to prevent more children being harmed by these dangerous items.
Hidden household dangers
However, it is not only toys that contain deadly batteries. An alarming report by industry watchdog Choice found that 10 out of 17 common household products failed button battery safety tests. The investigation has prompted more than 26,000 Australians to join Choice’s campaign urging the Federal Government to act.
The items (such as watches and birthday cards) were checked against the voluntary standard, which calls for button battery compartments to be safely secured and for products to have warning labels about the safety risks to children. Most of them failed.
Paediatrician Dr Ruth Barker, who leads the charge for the industry to adopt stricter safety standards, says the results are not surprising.
Although the products tested may not seem to be the sort of thing a young child would be attracted to, the research shows that children access batteries from a diverse range of common household products,” – Dr Barker says.
Sometimes the product is dropped and the battery released, the product is left on the coffee table, car seat, or kitchen bench. Sometimes kids climb or rummage about to find batteries from the most unlikely sources, even several years after the initial purchase.”
Enticingly shiny and smooth, button batteries are easy to swallow and can get stuck on the way to the stomach, causing severe localised burning with surprisingly few symptoms. The consequence can be fatal.
Three hospital visits prior to child’s death
When Summer Steer swallowed a button battery in June 2013, she was just four years old. She is the first child to die in Australia from swallowing a lithium battery, the ABC reports.
The little girl’s mother, Andrea Shoesmith, says she took her daughter to hospital three times in the days before her death.
Summer initially has a sore stomach, high temperature and black bowel movements, before developing a nose bleed and vomiting blood.
The little girl is flown from Noosa Hospital to Brisbane Hospital where she has a heart attack and dies. A small lithium battery is later found stuck in her oesophagus.
Summer was overcome by a silent killer and died of blood loss, Dr Barker says.
She walked around with (the battery) inside her for two weeks. I think for any parent, what was devastating was that the battery was sitting inside her and they didn’t know.”
Button battery injuries rising
According to Choice, a 2017 national surveillance program (funded by Queensland Health) found that in its first 15 months of the five-year program there were 17 cases of severe button battery injuries. 13 of these cases involved damage to the oesophagus.
It’s hoped that a button battery safety code will be released. Certainly, to date, little action is being taken to prevent such injuries.
Button batteries should be treated as a poison. The industry has known about the hazards posed by button batteries for more than 40 years. Yet it is only recently that battery manufacturers have started selling batteries in child-resistant packages.
Although the poisons information number is commonly displayed on household chemicals, I have yet to see battery packaging that carries this vital information,” – says Dr Barker.
The video below highlights the danger of button batteries to children.
Calls for changes to the law
Doctors and consumer groups, including Choice, are pushing for the Federal Government to move faster on its promise to make it illegal to sell unsafe products in Australia. They say injuries and deaths will only stop when the law is changed.
This is precisely what Bella’s mum, Allison, is fighting for.
I have other children; I have a lot of friends and family with kids. And I hope one day my kids will have kids. It’s too late for Bella, but it’s not too late for everyone else. I want to do all I can to protect the kids of Australia.
As a parent, you want to protect your kids and I wasn’t able to save Bella. That’s why I’ll keep fighting to protect all of our children,” – says Allison.
If you would like to sign the petition for safe products, which aims to make it illegal to sell products that might cause harm (for example a product that has an accessible battery compartment) – visit the Choice website and fill in the details at the bottom of the page.