The hidden dangers of button batteries

Button batteries can injure and kill small children, so why are they so accessible?

Safety not included

A button battery is smaller than a 10-cent piece, but the physical damage it can cause can be fatal.

Lithium and alkaline batteries (commonly called button, coin or disc batteries because of their small, smooth and round appearance) are increasingly becoming a safety risk in Australia. These batteries, which can be found in common household items such as kitchen scales and TV remotes, have the potential to do catastrophic damage if they're swallowed – particularly by young children. They can burn through the oesophagus and other parts of the body in just hours, resulting in severe injuries and – in some cases – death.

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In this article:

Here, there and everywhere

You'll find these tiny dangers everywhere. Here are just some of the more common appliances that button batteries can be found in:

  • bathroom scales
  • hearing aids
  • reading lights
  • cameras
  • flameless candles
  • games and toys
  • watches
  • calculators
  • torches and laser lights
  • thermometers
  • remote control devices that unlock car doors and control MP3 speakers
  • musical greeting cards

How they burn

It would be easy to assume that these batteries are a choking hazard, or that it's a chemical leak that causes the physical damage if they're ingested. But it's actually the result of the electrical charge the battery puts out when it's stuck in body tissue, causing heat which can burn inside the stomach, oesophagus, bowel or even a nostril in less than two hours. This charge exists even in batteries that seem flat, so while it may not have enough power to run your device any longer, it can still cause catastrophic damage inside a child.

A growing problem

In Australia, two children have died from button battery-related injuries. And it's been estimated by Product Safety Australia that 20 children a week are presenting at emergency departments nationwide for the removal or treatment of a swallowed or inserted button battery.

And it's not just a problem in Australia. In the US, more than 3500 button battery incidents are reported each year. Between 2006 and 2010, the number of American children reported to have ingested button batteries increased fourfold, compared to the previous five years.

In the meantime, the lithium battery industry is growing. These slim, light and powerful batteries are popular in small devices, and are simultaneously decreasing in cost. As a result, the industry estimates that production of lithium batteries in China alone will triple by 2020.

In Australia, injury data shows that button battery incidents are also on the rise. A report by the Queensland Injury Surveillance Unit (QISU) shows that the number of children presenting to emergency departments increased from 27 in 2012, to 50 in 2013 – a rise of 85%. In the first half of 2014 (which is as far the report currently runs), 37 children had already been treated for ingested batteries.

Kidsafe Queensland CEO Susan Teerds says the proliferation of products containing button batteries is alarming: "They are everywhere now. Even if you don't think you have any in your home there's a good chance you're mistaken."

CHOICE visited a suburban shopping centre and within an hour found numerous items containing unsecured button batteries. These included colourful party favours and novelties clearly aimed at young children (despite the warnings on the packet, often in very tiny print). Additionally we found a number of common household items such as kitchen scales and flameless candles with flimsy casing and easily accessed batteries. Even more concerning was the number of packets of lithium button batteries for sale in some stores with no child proof packaging, on display on low shelves and racks all within arms reach of a young child.

Damage done

While the news of a young child dying from swallowing a button battery is devastating, those who survive come out far from unscathed, as the resulting physical damage is often severe and long term. Paediatric emergency doctor and Director of the Queensland Injury Surveillance Unit (QISU), Dr Ruth Barker says, "These injuries cast long shadows, they are caustic injuries. Burn scar tissue doesn't stretch or grow and has to be treated regularly under anaesthetic."

Hunter, a one-year-old boy, swallowed a lithium battery, which burnt a large hole in his oesophagus and trachea leaving him unable to swallow his own saliva. As a result he has endured 10 operations so far to try to repair the damage. Many children can't swallow or eat for years afterwards, and it can be life-changing. "While they are lucky to survive, life won't be the same," says Barker. (See Sarah's story below to find out how one victim is coping three decades on.)

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The problems with button batteries

There are a number of elements that make button or disc batteries a particular safety problem compared to other batteries:

  • Size: the button battery is the perfect size to lodge in a windpipe. If it were much smaller, it would travel to the stomach and eventually be passed in the stool.
  • Design: the anode (where the current flows in from outside) and cathode (where the current flows out) are close, and result in a high current which passes quickly through salty tissue. It is this electrical current (not the leaking battery acid) that creates heat that can cause serious burns within two hours of swallowing.
  • Dangerous even when flat: a lithium battery will still cause damage when it's out of charge. The battery will stop working at about 1.1 volts, but can still cause burns even when it's below one volt.
  • They go down easily and they don't hurt: many children can swallow a disc battery without choking or coughing, which means unless someone sees them do it, parents or carers will be none the wiser. Kidsafe's Teerds says the smooth, shiny look and feel is also particularly appealing to younger children who like to put things in their mouths. Soft tissue in the oesophagus and gut doesn't register pain very well, so the battery can burn severely without the child noticing.
  • The symptoms are varied: if a child has swallowed a battery, they're unlikely to tell anyone. Young children don't remember, and older children are often reluctant to say anything for fear of getting in trouble.

Once the battery starts to burn, the symptoms can range from feeling ill and grizzly to having a mild cough – which can all be easily written off by parents or medical personnel as something else. Summer Steer, who died after swallowing a button battery in 2013, was mistakenly diagnosed with giardia.

Summer's story

Summer Steer

In 2013, four-year-old Summer Steer was effectively a walking time bomb when she swallowed a button battery without anyone noticing.

It was only when Summer's mother noticed that her little girl was producing dark-coloured stools that she took her to a doctor, who diagnosed her with giardia.

Summer was still playing, eating and drinking for the majority of the fortnight after she swallowed the battery, but eventually the little girl started vomiting blood. In hospital, she was wrongly diagnosed with a bloody nose and sent home. After two more hospital visits Summer's condition deteriorated severely, and it was only when she was fitted with an oxygen tube in hospital using an X-ray that an object was discovered lodged in her throat. Despite the discovery, medical professionals decided the object would be removed once she was flown to Brisbane from Noosa. In Brisbane she was rushed into surgery, where it was discovered that the object was a lithium battery. She died shortly after.

An inquiry was held after Summer's death, and despite investigations it was never clear where the battery she swallowed had come from.

Susan Teerds says, "Even if you don't have kids these things are everybody's problem. If you don't lock them down and dispose of them properly, you are part of the problem."

Sarah's story

In 1985, Patricia Preston's baby daughter Sarah swallowed a 'flat' lithium button battery she found in a box in the camera shop her mum was working in. The battery went down easily, and Patricia was none the wiser.

Preston says later that day the nine-month-old had an unusual cry and seemed a bit off. She called the local hospital and was told Sarah would be fine. Unconvinced, the next day she made the 80km trip to hospital, where she was told that the baby had croup.

Preston stayed up all night with her baby, who by this time had started passing dark stools "like squid ink". Panicked, she headed to her mum's home in Sydney.

button batteries

Preston's mother (who was a nurse) took Sarah to Westmead Children's Hospital, where she was again diagnosed with croup and made to wait for six hours. She was eventually X-rayed, but the foreign object found in her throat was mistaken for a coin. After a long wait she was taken into surgery, and it was then that the surgeons discovered the 'coin' was in fact a button battery.

The battery had burned a hole in Sarah's trachea and she suffered a lung collapse. As a result of her injuries she was unable to eat and was fed through a tube in her stomach for two years. Now aged 31, Preston says Sarah still has problems swallowing, and suffered developmental delays after extended time in hospital.

While Preston says she was lucky she found doctors who were prepared to investigate her baby's problem, she finds it hard to comprehend that what she and Sarah went through is still an issue 31 years later.

"Here we are all these years later and I see so many parallels between what happened with me and Sarah, and [what happened to] Summer Steer."

What needs to change?

While there have been some positive moves by industry – such as the funding of an education campaign organised by Energizer, Woolworths and MisterMinit, and the introduction of child-proof packaging by some manufacturers – many who work in child safety don't believe enough is being done.

Dr Barker says education isn't enough. "So many new children are born each day, and even if you are educated about the dangers, accidents still happen. Retailers aren't being held accountable, these batteries are just like oven cleaner. Would you be happy to sell a musical card for little kids filled with oven cleaner?"

When CHOICE contacted the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission, a spokesperson said that the organisation is working with industry to deliver increased safety through the introduction of child-resistant packaging, improved warnings on packaging, and strengthened containment of the batteries in products.

The ACCC has also been working with other Australian Consumer Law (ACL) regulators, electrical safety regulators, the medical profession, parents and caregivers to raise awareness of the hazard, and to improve early identification of incidents.

In late 2016 the ACCC announced a national strategy for button batteries to reduce incidents involving children and the batteries, which will involve all Australian Consumer Law (ACL) regulators, with the ACCC playing a coordinating role. Over the next two years the ACCC says that all ACL regulators will collect evidence to inform regulation and other approaches to improve button battery safety in Australia. Additional marketplace surveillance will be undertaken in all jurisdictions to raise awareness and guide supplier and industry improvement of the safety of consumer products that use button batteries.

But many of the experts we spoke to feel these initiatives are not good enough or soon enough.

Consumer law oversight?

Barker says many Australians would be shocked that so many products in the Australian market have not been tested to any safety standard. "Too many preventable injuries have been caused by products that are badly designed." She wants a general safety provision added to the ACL (due for review later this year), which would require companies to ensure that the products they sell are safe.

CHOICE campaigns advisor Sarah Agar says there are surprising gaps in Australia's consumer law. "While the Australian Consumer Law provides strong protections for consumers who experience problems with products, there is no general requirement under the law that products sold be safe. This is startling – most people would assume that our law requires goods to be safe before they are sold."

She says button batteries are a perfect example of this oversight. "While there are rules requiring that button batteries in toys (for children under 36 months) be properly secured and inaccessible to children, these rules do not apply to other products."

Agar says that the current system of rules is complicated, and it's leading to injuries and deaths. "A simpler option would be to amend the law to require that all products sold be safe."

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When a toy is not a toy

Currently, products marketed as a toy for children under 36 months require all parts containing batteries to be locked down. But all other products are exempt.

As Barker points out, this rule is shortsighted, as young children still live in houses that contain household products, and often have older siblings who own gadgets that contain unsecured batteries.

"What concerns me the most, are items listed as novelties. You often find labelling that says 'this is not a toy', but it's so clearly aimed at kids – how can they get away that?"

Light-up and musical novelties are often the kind of products sold or given away at fetes and schools. "All of those things are not built to the toy standard, they don't come with packaging and don't have warnings on them at all – and they aren't durable. You'd be surprised by the kinds of complex manoeuvres even a toddler can perform to extract the batteries with ease," says Barker.

Kidsafe's Teerds says she regularly sees products containing unsecured button batteries aimed at children. "I've seen torches and lanterns being given to young children at schools and daycares that carry these batteries. At the markets I've seen tutus with inbuilt lights powered by button batteries."

And it's not just small-scale producers. Only recently there was recall of one brand of the hugely popular fidget spinners when it was discovered that the lights in it were powered by an unsecured button battery.   Last year there were a further two recalls of toys being sold to promote movies and halloween that also had easily accessible button batteries. And in 2015 Event Cinemas conducted a voluntary recall of 15,000 light-up drink containers that were sold to promote the children's film Inside Out when it was discovered that the bottom of the cup was easily removed and contained several button batteries and the Commonwealth Bank issued a recall of Cosmic Beam promotional torches it had distributed to school-age children.

Dispose of carefully

What makes lithium button batteries particularly dangerous is that even when they are 'flat' and can no longer power your device, they still contain enough charge to burn if they're ingested. As a result, careful disposal is critical, and that doesn't mean your bin is a safe place either.

There are some recycling facilities available for lithium and alkaline batteries and this is the safest place for them to go. For more information on how and where to dispose of your button batteries head to

And if recycling sounds too hard, Teerds has some harsh reminders for anyone who is in possession of a button battery. "This is everyone's problem, we have children dying and being injured. If you don't have a child you might think 'this doesn't affect me', but if you throw it out of the window of your car, or don't dispose of it safely then it could end up in the hands of a child anyway. You wouldn't do that with a loaded gun, so why would you do it with one of these batteries?"

Safety tips

  • If you suspect a child has swallowed a button battery, immediately call the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 or go to a hospital emergency room. Do not let the child eat or drink, and do not induce vomiting.
  • Keep coin-sized button batteries and devices out of sight and out of reach of children.
  • Examine devices and make sure the battery compartment is secure.
  • Dispose of used button batteries immediately. Flat batteries can still be dangerous.
  • Tell others about the risk associated with button batteries, and how to keep their children safe.

Twenty kids a week is twenty too many

Button batteries are a common household killer. Currently, only toys designed for children under three years of age are required by law to have secured battery compartments. This means that many everyday household items that contain button batteries – including car keys, baby thermometers and remotes – have no mandatory safety standards.

That's why we're calling on the government to act and introduce mandatory safety standards covering all items containing button batteries, including that:

  • all button battery-powered products must have a secure battery compartment,
  • button batteries of up to 32mm diameter must be sold in child-resistant packaging,
  • for products supplied with a button battery, batteries must be secured within the battery compartment and not loose in the product packaging,
  • products that use or contain button batteries have clear and concise warnings, making the risk clear to consumers at point of purchase.

We deserve to have trust in the things we buy. Join our campaign for stronger product safety laws.

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