Consumer Safety - Button Battery

11 November 2020

Earlier this year, three-year-old Brittney Conway swallowed a button battery. After weeks in the Queensland Children's Hospital and despite the best efforts of her doctors, Brittney died. Last month, her parents Lorraine and David Conway spoke publicly about the death of their daughter. They described Brittney as a girl with a thousand sparkles in her eyes. I cannot imagine the heartache and pain they have endured.

A few weeks ago, more than 30,000 LED wristbands were distributed at the AFL grand final. Kidsafe Queensland warned the wristbands contained button batteries that were not properly secured and that there was a significant risk of harm, particularly to children. The AFL subsequently issued an urgent safety recall.

Brittney Conway's death and the AFL recall are reminders of the risks some products pose. They are also reminders that Australia's consumer safety laws are totally inadequate. Australia does not have a mandatory safety standard for button batteries despite 20 children being hospitalised after swallowing batteries each and every week—20 children a week.

In March this year, the ACCC proposed mandatory standards to improve battery safety. They said:

Without such mandatory safety standards it is likely we will continue to see further deaths and serious injuries associated with button batteries.

The government is yet to act. It makes me angry that we continue to see deaths and injuries while we wait.

Mandatory safety standards only exist for around 44 product types. That is a very small group of products. For every other product, consumer law is reactive. We wait until something bad happens before we take any form of action. Australia has more safety recalls than any other OECD country—around 650 each and every year. But fewer than half of recalled products are returned. The other half, almost two million unsafe products, are still in people's homes. That is why unsafe products cause more than 700 deaths and an incredible 50,000 injuries in Australia every year. That is totally unacceptable. But it's not surprising. There is no law in Australia that prevents a business from selling an unsafe product. This needs to change.

The government needs to legislate a general product safety provision. This would mean businesses are obligated to ensure the products they sell are actually safe. Many other countries already have such obligations. Britain has had a general safety provision for more than 30 years. The EU implemented a similar rule in 1992. Even the United States has a provision for children's products. But not Australia. The Productivity Commission considered the matter in 2006 and again in 2008 and noted the benefits of a safety provision. But they found, incredibly, that they were outweighed by the costs. Children are dying, but the prime consideration was cost.

This was the government's position until the review of Australian consumer law in 2017. It is harder than ever for consumers to understand product safety, so the obligation must shift to manufacturers and retailers. A general product safety provision would create incentives for businesses not to sell unsafe product and it would empower regulators to ensure safety, allowing unsafe products to be withdrawn before any potential tragedy occurs. It would also help Australian manufacturers, giving international consumers more confidence in the quality of our products.

There are plenty of good reasons to support a general safety provision, but surely the most important one is that it will keep our children safe. I hope government will listen. If not to me or to the ACCC, they should listen to Lorraine and David Conway when they talk about their beautiful daughter, Brittney.

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