Need to know
- Australia's button battery safety laws took effect in June 2022
- We bought and tested 15 common household products to check whether they complied
- Our accredited labs found 6 out of the 15 products had serious failures in button battery safety tests
Button batteries are everywhere these days, powering everything from medical devices to musical birthday cards.
But there's a price to pay for the convenience: button batteries have long been a potentially lethal threat to young children, who ingest them at an alarming rate.
In December 2020, after years of campaigning by CHOICE and other organisations, the Australian government introduced mandatory safety standards for button and coin batteries. Manufacturers, suppliers and retailers were given 18 months to comply with the new standards, and the standards finally took effect in June 2022. These standards will help prevent children from accessing the batteries, which can be fatal if swallowed.
Around 20 children present to hospital emergency departments every week in Australia due to a suspected button battery ingestion or insertion.
In some cases, the damage is catastrophic and can be fatal.
Why is it happening? Button batteries are enticingly shiny and smooth. They're also easy to swallow and can get stuck on the way to the stomach, causing severe localised internal burning with surprisingly few outward symptoms apart from the child simply feeling sick or in pain.
There have been three button battery-related deaths in Australia to date. In these cases, the parents didn't know their child had swallowed a battery and its source was never found.
Button batteries can cause catastrophic damage when swallowed, and can be fatal
Button and coin batteries are a cheap and convenient way to power small items such as thermometers, garage remotes and watches, so it's easy to see why these batteries have become so common. However, it was only in June 2022 in Australia that regulations were put in place.
Toys designed for children aged under three are legally required to have secured battery compartments, but up until very recently, they were the only products where battery safety was mandated.
An example of the button battery safety alert symbol (it may vary in colour and size).
The new mandatory standards (regulations) were announced in 2020, with an 18-month lead time for manufacturers and retailers to get their products compliant. The standards came into effect in June 2022.
The new regulations cover products that contain button or coin batteries, as well as button and coin batteries themselves. They specify certain industry standards that can be used to prove the product's safety (including toy standards AS/NZS 8124.1 and AS/NZS 62115, audio/video equipment standard AS/NZS 62368.1, and others) as well as additional requirements for some products.
The safety tests generally involve a range of physical tests to see if the batteries can be accessed too easily. For example, the battery compartment cover may be subjected to various forces to make sure that it can't be easily opened by a child. 'Foreseeable misuse' tests help to make sure the batteries aren't exposed after typical mishaps such as if the product is dropped onto a hard floor.
A common requirement for most products is that not only must the battery compartment be secure, but any fastener for the compartment cover (such as a screw) must be captive. That is, it stays in the battery compartment cover when it's removed so that it isn't lost. If the screw is lost in the course of changing the battery, then the compartment cover is no longer secure enough, and it's too easy for a child to access the button or coin battery inside.
The regulations also cover the warnings and information that need to be on the packaging and instructions for button and coin batteries, and for any products that contain them. For example, products that contain button and coin batteries need to have an internationally recognised safety alert symbol (as pictured) on their packaging. It should be clearly visible, prominent and legible.
After the regulations became law, we bought a range of different everyday products, all powered by button or coin batteries. We put them to the test in CHOICE's accredited laboratories to check if they complied. The 15 products included:
- digital probe thermometers
- keychain garage remote controls
- decorative LED lights.
We tested the products as per the toy standards, for which our labs are accredited, and which is one of the allowed options in the regulations. However, manufacturers are free to choose any of the nominated standards within the regulations, which can lead to slightly different results for some products. For that reason, we put our findings to each of the manufacturers, in case they could show they had complied via one of the other testing options.
Dr Ruth Barker, a paediatrician and director of the Queensland Injury Surveillance Unit, has been a leader for many years in efforts to improve product safety standards. She made these comments on previous tests we've done of such products:
"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."
"Sometimes the product is dropped and the battery released, the product is left on the coffee table, car seat, or kitchen bench, and sometimes kids climb or rummage about to find batteries from the most unlikely sources, even several years after the initial purchase. Novelties and cheap plastic products, often sold with a 'this is not a toy' label, are a serious issue, but in general toys are not the main culprit. Quality toys tend to be designed with battery safety in mind."
For six of the products we tested, the battery compartment was secured with a screw, but the screw was not captive – that is, it came loose from the battery compartment cover when we unscrewed it.
Under the regulations, it depends on which standard has been used to prove compliance, but in most cases (including the toy standards on which we based our tests) the battery compartment must be secured with captive fasteners such as screws.
The screws or other fasteners need to be captive so that they aren't lost. If the screws are lost in the course of changing the battery, then the compartment cover is no longer secure enough, and it becomes too easy for a child to access the button or coin battery inside.
Products that failed our tests: Dreambaby Room & Bath Thermometer F321 (old version), Anko LED Strip Light with Remote 42724476 (now discontinued), Merlin Premium+ Four Button Remote Control E960M, and remote controls from Everlight Remote Control Multi Colour Lights 30116004 and Idigital 6 Piece Hexagon LED Light TRS 30116506.
Another failure of our test: the battery compartment of this Chamberlain Universal Garage Door Opener Remote Control MC100AML is secured with screws, but they aren’t captive (they can be removed completely). This makes them easier to lose, and the battery compartment is then not secure enough.
For three other products, we found that the product itself was safe, but some of the required warnings and information about button batteries were missing, or were very small and hard to read. The regulations require the warning symbols and information to be visible, prominent and legible.
In most cases we see failures for information and label requirements as relatively minor, unlike physical safety failures of the actual product. And for those products where we believe the symbols and warnings are too small, at least they were actually present, which is better than not having them at all.
In these cases, where the manufacturer replied, they simply disagreed that their labels and information were too small. The mandatory standards don't specify actual dimensions for these warnings – they just require the symbols and warnings to be "clearly visible, prominent and legible".
We believe the safety alert symbol should be at least 10mm in size. (That's the required size for the symbol used on toys to indicate they aren't suitable for children under three years, which we think is a good guide to apply in this case.) And we think the text of the warnings should be easy to read in normal lighting without needing a magnifier. In our opinion, that is not the case for some of the warnings on these products.
Products with minor labelling failures in our test: Welcare Ultimate Digital Thermometer WDT606, Vicks Fever InSight Thermometer V916C-AUSV1 and Bodichek Digital Thermometer Waterproof Flexible Tip 13011229.
The button battery warning symbol and text on this Vicks thermometer are very small, and the white text on a pale background is not easy to read.
The good news is we found several products that were fully compliant with the mandatory standards, and happily these included the two toys that were in the test.
Products that passed all our tests: Vtech Baby Shake & Sounds Caterpillar, Anko Men's Digital Watch, Vtech Bluey Wackadoo Watch, Target Minecraft Flashing LED Watch and Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Stream & Learn Remote.
We found in at least two cases that we'd bought older, non-compliant versions of the products which were still in stores, even though these had been discontinued or replaced with upgraded versions. We didn't go looking for non-compliant products either – we simply bought a range of items that contained button and coin batteries.
The Anko 5m LED Strip Light with Remote, product number 42724476 (from Kmart), didn't have most of the required warnings about button batteries. Kmart advised that this version has been discontinued and replaced by a compliant version, Anko LED Strip Lights product number 43216802.
The Dreambaby Room & Bath Thermometer F321 (yellow duck shape) originally had a non-captive screw for the battery compartment cover. It has been replaced by a new compliant version with a captive pin fastener.
It's great that these items have been replaced by compliant versions, but the non-compliant versions shouldn't have been in stores at the time we went shopping. The mandatory standards were in effect at that time, and had been announced 18 months previously.
Two versions of the Dreambaby Room & Bath Thermometer F321: the new compliant version on the left (with a captive pin securing the battery compartment) and the old version on the right (with a non-captive screw).
- Choose products that are powered with larger batteries that are much less likely to be swallowed (e.g. AAA, AA or 9V). This is especially true for toys.
- Try to keep any products that contain button and coin batteries out of reach of young children.
- When buying products that contain button and coin batteries, look for packaging with the safety alert symbol shown clearly on the packaging, and with clear warnings about button battery safety. They're a good sign that the manufacturer has aimed for compliance with the mandatory standard.
- For products with replaceable batteries, check that the battery compartment is secure, preferably with a captive screw or similar fastener.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.