NEW YORK -- After five to seven years, rechargeable batteries typically become rechargeable no more. Tossed into the trash, they begin an extended discharge into ground, air and water, where their potential to do harm is vast.
Responding to growing concern about the environmental consequences of these common products, Towson-based Black & Decker Corp. announced yesterday a new program to take back the rechargeable batteries used in its popular cordless mixers, screwdrivers, vacuum cleaners, drills, can openers and other products.
In exchange for mailing in, or dropping off, the spent power cells, Black & Decker will provide a free home repair guide.
Cells that can be revived by Black & Decker will be included in rebuilt products. The ones that are truly dead will be broken into their component parts -- nickel and cadmium -- and recycled.
Batteries can be dropped off at any of the 750 Black & Decker-owned or authorized service centers, the locations of which can be determined by calling (800) 762-6672.
By themselves, the two metals are common and useful elements in industrial products and, if handled properly, might not present a problem.
"I don't think people need to be screaming about batteries when they can be hit by a car," said Ellen Pratt, an environmental protection specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency.
But the two metals can be significant health risks if they leach into soil and ground water. The EPA classifies both as carcinogenic and disruptive to reproduction. More common disposable batteries, which don't use either material, are no better. They typically contain mercury, which can damage nervous systems and cause birth defects.
High levels of mercury found in fish, and cadmium in soil, have prompted several states to begin legislating battery disposal, said Dana Duxbury, of Duxbury & Associates, a Massachusetts consulting firm.
Minnesota has taken the lead, requiring that manufacturers provide disposal services, and Black & Decker representatives at yesterday's meeting suggested that move affected the company's thinking.
More than 20 other states are considering similar legislation, said Linda Biagioni, director of environmental affairs for Black & Decker.
A new interest group, the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association, has been established in Atlanta by Black & Decker and 80 other users and producers of reusable batteries.
Among other members is Makita U.S.A., a competitor of Black & Decker's in the power tool market. A spokesman for the company, Stan Rodrigues, said it, too, has begun work on a recycling program but had encountered problems.
"If someone brings in batteries, we will take them," Mr. Rodrigues said, "but we haven't publicized it because we could get more than we could handle."
As enviromenntal concerns grow about products that use batteries, the appliances grow more popular.
Black & Decker claims to have invented the market in 1961, when it introduced the first cordless drill.