Household batteries contain toxins but are used widely and foolishly


October 10, 1990|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

7 a.m. Your (battery-powered) alarm goes off. Pop into the bathroom to shave with your (battery-powered) shaver, and brush your teeth with your (battery-powered) toothbrush. Roust the kids out of bed. Junior rakes you with his plastic (battery-powered) assault weapon. Sis was reading under the covers all night with the (battery-powered) flashlight, and it rolls off the bed to break your toe. And it's only 7:20 a.m.

Let's face it. We're a battery-powered society. Americans use (and throw away) 2.5 billion household batteries a year. We use them for purposes both vital and absurd. They power our hearing aids, our smoke alarms and our flashlights. They drive those stupid little plastic potted plants that dance when you clap. And they perform a million uses that fall somewhere in between.

There are basically six kinds of batteries you are likely to use in your house: alkaline, carbon zinc, silver oxide, mercuric oxide, zinc air and nickel-cadmium. They contain different heavy metals, but they all work the same way and have the same four parts: anode, cathode, electrolyte and casing.

The anode, or negative electrode, is usually made of zinc, cadmium or lithium. It gives up electrons to the surrounding electrolyte liquid.

The cathode, the positive electrode at the other end of the battery, is made of metallic oxides such as manganese oxides. The cathode receives the electrons, and an electric current is born.

Eight major metals are used in batteries: mercury, cadmium, lead, lithium, manganese dioxide, silver, nickel and zinc. All eight are restricted under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Lead and mercury are also restricted under the Clean Air Act. Cadmium, lead, mercury and silver are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The metals are regulated because all have fairly appalling health effects. For example, exposure to mercury can cause paralysis and psychosis. Cadmium poisoning can cause prostate cancer, liver and lung disease. Exposure to manganese affects the respiratory system, the central nervous system, the kidneys and the eyes.

Each battery uses tiny amounts of one or more of these metals. But 2.5 billion tiny amounts add up. Nickel-cadmium batteries, for example, make up only an estimated .0005 percent of America's garbage, but they account for 54 percent of the cadmium we contribute to the environment. Batteries are the principal source of Canada's mercury emissions. And Sweden found that 35 percent of airborne mercury pollution was attributable to the incineration of batteries.

In most parts of the world, household batteries are not treated as hazardous waste. Instead, they are dumped into landfills, incinerators or the ocean, along with the rest of a community's trash. Some countries, notably Japan, France and Sweden, do recycle batteries, but the programs are limited and very expensive. A number of small recycling programs also exist in the United States, but household battery recycling is not widely available by any means.

Experts are divided over whether recycling of batteries should FTC become a priority. Battery manufacturers believe health risks are negligible and strenuously contest suggestions that recovery of the heavy metals is called for. At the same time, they are working to reduce the amounts of toxic metals in the batteries they make. Today's mercury batteries may contain as much as 70 percent LESS mercury than those you bought 10 years ago. An excellent trend.

What can consumers do?

Buy rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries and a recharger. Though these are every bit as toxic as other batteries, at least they can be reused several hundred times.

Keep two sets of rechargeable batteries for every appliance that needs them. That way, you can always have one set ready to roll when the charge starts to run low on the set in use. Store charged batteries in the refrigerator or freezer. The cold temperatures will prolong the useful life of the battery.

Another excellent way to reduce the number of batteries you discard is to avoid buying products that require them. Next time you're coming home from a business trip, for example, think twice before buying your kid some contraption that hoists plastic penguins up to a water slide, beeping insanely all the while.

Or a reindeer that springs across the floor whining "Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer." How about a nice book instead?

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