Recycling: Avoiding lead contamination

The average Israeli throws out 14 batteries a year. What can be done to prevent harm to human health and the environment?

Batteries. [File] (photo credit: REUTERS)
Batteries. [File]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The pressure of a fingertip on a button, and a battery-powered device begins working. Batteries keep our everyday lives wound up. They power cellphones, electronic reading and music devices, laptops, hearing aids, watches, cameras, flashlights, remote controls, toys, calculators, toothbrushes, scales, and home medical aids. Don’t forget the lights in our refrigerators. Yet, we seldom give thought to where old batteries go when they die – or how their afterlives affect us.
When not safely disposed of, batteries come back to haunt us like troubled spirits. Mixed up with household garbage, they wind up in landfills, coming into contact with moist, acidic, organic matter that corrodes their outer shells. Rainfall helps the process. Their contents leak out, and much of their contents are toxic. Cadmium, nickel, lead, cobalt and mercury from disintegrating batteries contaminate the ground, ultimately reaching groundwater sources.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency has classified cadmium as a probable carcinogen, and it’s known to damage lungs. Already traces of cadmium appear in ocean water. Lithium batteries explode when in contact with water, or when heavy equipment working in a landfill crushes them. This can cause fires that continue burning in the interior of the landfill for years, contaminating the air as well as the ground.
Imported wine jars sealed with lead were thought to have been one of the causes of ancient Rome’s decline. According to that theory, the wine’s acidic properties drew lead out of the sealings, and those who drank wine from those poisoned jars gradually lost their reason. Legend or not, exposure to lead still affects human health. Lead from batteries dries out, and when a landfill is disturbed, lead particulates rise into the air and are carried away by the wind. Lead inhaled by pregnant women may damage their fetus’s brain, kidneys and hearing. Small children exposed to lead from toys or inhalation become severely anemic.
Adult exposure to the metal may cause memory loss, high blood pressure, muscle and joint pain, and neurological disorders. There may be something to the story of crazed Roman wine drinkers.
That’s only three out of the many toxic heavy metals that batteries contain. The list of health damage goes on, including impaired motor development in children and even genetic damage. The average Israeli throws 14 batteries out yearly.
It’s not likely that we’ll give up using the devices powered by batteries. What can we do to prevent those indispensable batteries from harming human health and the environment? First, don’t overbuy batteries. Too many batteries in the house equals more old batteries to get rid of. Keep only enough to replace in your devices once or twice, not so many that the earliest bought will get old before you get around to using them.
Check your device to ensure that you buy the correct replacement batteries, so you don’t have unwanted, accidental extras on your hands.
Then, seek “green” batteries with labels indicating that they have lower mercury levels. Some governments even allow such batteries to be thrown out into household garbage. But as even traces of mercury accumulate over time, the responsible thing is to put them in safe disposal units too. You can usually find used-battery units attached to plastic bottle recycling bins. Electronics stores often have boxes for used batteries as well.
Rechargeable batteries are the greenest option. While it’s true that they’re more expensive than regular supermarket batteries, and require a charger as well, they’ll save you money in the long run. Rechargeable batteries must be disposed of in the same way as regular ones.
Remove the batteries from objects not in use to prevent erosion. The idea is to make any battery last as long as possible so as to hold off buying new ones.
If you have to replace a lithium battery, apply a last, full charge to the old one. That will consume the lithium content and make it safe for disposal.
Button cell batteries look like candy to small children. They’re easy to pick up; easy to swallow or put up the nose. An inhaled button battery is a very dangerous thing indeed. If you suspect a child has swallowed one, take her to the emergency room immediately. In other words, parents of small children should treat batteries as they would any other hazardous material – kept safely out of reach and locked up.
Israel has no functioning operation for battery recycling. Batteries are taken to a facility in Ramat Hovav and buried in leak proof containers. In other developed nations, recycling draws hundreds of kilograms of heavy metals out of every ton of batteries. If we were to have similar facilities, we could supply ourselves with a large part of metals that we must import at this time. In our small country, burial isn’t a long-term solution to hazardous material disposal. We hope new options develop soon.
The Hebrew website offers a list of battery disposal sites around the country. Write מיחזור סוללות in the search bar, top right.