This article was updated on 16 November, 2022. It discusses death from button batteries.
At my place recently I bought fake tea-light candles so the grandchildren wouldn’t burn themselves. Their mothers looked at me in horror. The danger from the tiny batteries that powered them was much greater than the flame of any candle.
Button batteries are everywhere, quite literally. They’re in our tiny devices, cheap and expensive, disposable and permanent.
Good Grief! discusses mortality. We do this is to help the living. So we’re passing the word along about button batteries.
Tonight’s episode of ABC’s Australian Story, sadly, focuses on the stories of Brittney, Bella and Summer, three little girls who died by swallowing button batteries, when they were all little enough to be at the age when children put things in their mouths.
These tiny batteries are small enough to swallow but lethal enough that they shouldn’t be anywhere near children. Each week in Australia, 20 children are taken to emergency departments because of symptoms caused by swallowing button batteries – but the cause can be missed.
In the cases of the three children in Australian Story tonight, their symptoms, such as spitting, coughing blood, black stools and vomiting were misdiagnosed in accident and emergency departments in their local hospitals, not just once but on several occasions.
The batteries can burn through a child’s oesophagus in less than two hours. The fluids of the oesophagus activate a chemical, sodium hydroxide, which starts the erosion of body tissue immediately.
“My name is Allison Rees, I am the grieving mother of Isabella,” begins the sad letter Allison wrote to the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) asking them to implement safer practices in relation to the packaging, storage and access to button batteries, following the death of Bella.
Every time someone writes to Allison’s Facebook page Bella’s Footprints about another product on the market with button batteries that, for example, easily fall out of a device or power a child’s toy, she alerts the ACCC.
Along with Andrea Shoesmith, mother of Summer, and Lorraine Conway, mother of Brittney, the women have been campaigning for better awareness and consumer protections.
“It isn’t a club we wanted to join,” the mothers tell Australian Story.
Dr Ruth Barker, Director at Queensland Injury Surveillance Unit has been battling to raise awareness since Summer’s death, the first in Australia from a button battery.
“And I’m sick of talking about it,” she tells Australian Story.
With the wave of increasingly small electronic devices flooding the market, the number of button batteries has exploded, she explains.
Peter De Waard, was the barrister assisting the coroner in Summer’s inquest.
“We wrote to button battery manufacturers, distributors, retailers,” Peter says. “We wrote to all of the health departments in Australia, state and territory. We wrote to the Queensland Government, the Commonwealth Government.”
He and his team sent more than 160 letters advising of the need for safer battery design, child resistant packaging and warnings, kid-proof battery compartments, and safe disposal of button batteries.
“I did get the distinct impression that a lot of people thought that Summer’s death was a freak accident. But by the time we ran the inquest, there was already a second death in Victoria,” he says.
Dr Hannah Burns, a paediatric ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon who worked for almost an hour on Summer to stem her bleeding and resuscitate her says: “Every time I hear another story about a child who’s ingested a button battery, it just makes me feel sick.”
“Whenever we hear a child has swallowed a button battery and there’s bleeding associated with that, we know almost universally that’s going to be a fatal injury.”
Fortunately, change is coming. In 2022, a new industry code will be adopted introducing new safety laws around them.
But those campaigning to protect children say a redesign of the batteries is still needed, and awareness still needs to be raised among parents.
In the meantime, here are just some of the items to be aware of:
Singing birthday cards
To watch Australian Story’s Sisters in Arms, go to:
Bella’s Footprints Facebook page raises awareness about risks from button batteries and has identified products (sometimes unexpected) that have the batteries in them. It can be found at:
To read more, go to: