12 February 2020

Button Battery Safety - Senator Statements

I rise today to speak about an issue which keeps me up at night: the safety of our kids. Any parent knows the anxiety of keeping their child safe from harm. In the early years it often centres on safe sleeping, the risk of terrible tragedies like SIDS. In the toddler years, new risks emerge for our children. Kids are running around; they're at risk of falls and tumbles. They're grabbing things, exploring things and experimenting with the world around them. Most toddlers, if they're anything like mine, are putting anything and everything into their little mouths. One of my biggest fears as a parent is that one day one of the things my toddler will put into his mouth is a button battery, because these batteries are absolutely everywhere—in television remotes, watches, kitchen scales, hearing aids, pocket computers and security tokens. They're in many torches and in laser pointers. Increasingly, many toys also use button batteries to power the lights and sounds that make them interactive and attention-grabbing for little children. Books which sing nursery rhymes are just one example currently in my own home, and novelty birthday cards are another.

These batteries are everywhere, and they seem, almost by design, to appeal to curious little minds and grabby little fingers. They are small, round, shiny, silver. They look like a toy. They look edible; they look like something a child would want to put into their mouth. And every week in Australia 20 children are picking up these shiny little batteries and ingesting them. We know that statistic because 20 children are admitted to emergency departments across Australia every week for that very reason. That's because when a button battery is swallowed it can do serious, potentially deadly damage to the child who swallowed it.

There are broadly two types of button batteries on the market: coin cells, which typically use lithium chemistry; and button cells, which typically use alkaline chemistry. While the chemistry of each of these processes is slightly different, risks exist with both. The way button batteries work means that saliva or other internal fluids generate a chemical reaction, known as hydrolysis, that releases a strong alkaline and is highly corrosive. It can burn through tissue. Any battery with over 1.23 volts can cause hydrolysis. This means that even flat batteries have the potential to pose a serious risk to children who ingest them. For instance, a flat three-volt battery would generally still have greater than 1.23 volts of residual charge when it has ceased operating effectively. So it's not just operational batteries or full batteries that present a risk to children; even flat batteries should be handled with the greatest of care.

Swallowed batteries damage a child's oesophagus and can also damage the trachea. Even after the battery has passed through part of the body, the chemicals from the circuit can remain and continue to cause damage. Symptoms are not always immediately obvious. There may be difficulty breathing for the child, they may seem generally unwell, but they might also start coughing up or vomiting blood. These symptoms can be treated and the battery removed, but often young children are unable to communicate to their parents or carers what is wrong or even to make the connection between feeling unwell, being unwell and the fact that they've swallowed a battery.

In worst-case scenarios, swallowing button batteries can lead to death, and in recent years it has in Australia. Two Australian children have died from swallowing these batteries, and we know that at least 64 children worldwide have too. That is why the only sure way to keep children safe from button batteries is to stop them being exposed to them. The only way is to stop these batteries getting into little hands and little mouths.

At present in Australia, our laws are failing to keep children safe from button batteries. That's because our laws only require that toys specifically designed for children under the age of three be safe. They say nothing about the endless array of products that contain button batteries and often fall into children's hands. That is where the problem lies. Instead, the safety of these products, these household items that I listed earlier, is covered by a voluntary industry code. Let us be absolutely clear: this voluntary code is not working. The ACCC has found that the code has yet to deliver a meaningful decrease in the rate of button battery exposures, and a high level of unsafe button battery products remain on the Australian market. Kids are still being admitted to hospital. Kids are still not safe.

The time for delay on this issue is beyond over. The government has known for years and years the risks that these batteries and the products containing them present to children. They have known the risks associated with button batteries because they have been told over and over again by industry, by NGOs and, sadly, dreadfully, by coroners. But nothing real, nothing meaningful, nothing quick is happening. They have sat on their hands while the safety of our children remains at risk. That is why I moved a motion yesterday in the Senate, calling on the government to implement a mandatory code to protect children from being exposed to potentially deadly button batteries. What I got in response were excuses for further delay—excuse and delay, excuses as to why action which could and should be taken immediately has been put off until who knows when. The time for excuses is over, the time for delay is over and the time for action is now. I am calling on the government to immediately move to make sure that button battery products in the Australian market are safe, to mandate the voluntary code and to do everything in their legislative and regulatory power to protect children from button battery harm. This issue keeps me, as a parent and as a senator, awake at night because the government can actually do something about it. It is within their regulatory powers. If we regulate this issue, we could keep children safer. Regulating this issue would keep kids out of hospital and out of harm's way.

Every single parent knows that their most important job in life is keeping their child safe. They know this because thinking about safety consumes an enormous amount of parents' mental load. When there is something we can do in this place to make the job of keeping kids safer that bit easier, surely we all have a responsibility to act. We know button batteries are a serious danger to young children. We all know this because coronial inquests have told us this and the ACCC has told us this. Parents across the nation who have watched their children be admitted to hospital and who have watched their children die because of ingesting button batteries have told us this.

If the government can't act immediately on this basic issue of child safety—this issue which I stress is within their control to regulate, to act on and to move on immediately—then what is the point of them? If they can't do this one thing which would keep our kids safe from this serious, serious harm, and if they can't see how urgent and critical it is that we see action immediately, without further delay, without kicking it down the road, then they must be so out of touch with the parents of young children who live this fear and are concerned about it. These parents are telling me every single day that they're worried about these products. The experts are telling us they're worried about these products.

Every single parent just wants to see their child safe. With regulatory change, we can keep them safe. So I implore the government, I urge the government: take action now, don't delay this. We don't need to delay this. We know what we can do. We know what is within the regulatory and legislative power of this government to get these unsafe products fixed, to make them safer, to keep these batteries contained, to keep them out of little hands and little mouths, to keep them away from children. They are not only at risk of being hospitalised. They are not only at risk of dreadful, serious industry. They are at risk of death. We can change this. It's a regulation. It's a legislation change within our grasp. I urge you to do it now.

12 February 2020