Monday, June 25, 2012

Bountiful Button Batteries

Aren't those flashing sneakers that kids wear adorable?  Every step they take, the sneaker lights up at the heel.  And those little stuffed animals, toys, and children's books that make realistic sounds like various birds--hawks, blue jays, robins....  And the greeting cards we can purchase now.  You open one up and it sings to you.  How cool is that!

Fast forward--the sneakers are no longer blinking, the birds are no longer squawking, and the song from the card is waning--if you keep your cards that long.  Now what happens to those products that no longer function properly.  The batteries inside have died, so of course you'll just throw out the product, won't you?

The tiny, worn out button batteries inside these products are hazardous waste.  Does this surprise you?   It seems like there should be instructions about what to do with the batteries when they're spent--but there are not instructions or warnings with most of these products.

Most button cell batteries  contain mercury, silver, cadmium, lithium or other heavy metals as their main component.  Button cell batteries can contain up to 25 ppm (parts per million) of mercury. Mercuric-oxide batteries may contain up to 50% mercury by weight. Mercury can cause nerve damage and can bioaccumulate in fish and other aquatic species.   Cadmium can damage the lungs and kidneys.

Remember the saying, "Mad as a Hatter"?  This is a historic expression going back to the 19th century when mercuric nitrate was used to shape and convert fur into felt hats.   In those days, hatters commonly exhibited slurred speech, tremors, irritability, shyness, depression, and other neurological symptoms from mercury exposure.  And thus was born the expression, “mad as a hatter.”  Lewis Carroll used a "mad hatter" character in his story, "Alice in Wonderland."

When we throw button batteries into the trash, we are adding to the air pollution from the waste incinerators and contributing to the hazardous concoctions leaving landfills as leachate.  The leachate is treated similarly to sewage wastewater and then eventually put back into our water systems.

Button batteries are incredibly common these days, they're not just in children's products.  We have them in our cameras, penlights, hearing aids, watches, calculators, electronic tea candles, flashing jewelry, remote control devices, fever thermometers, and lots more.

What To Do If Someone Swallows a Button Battery?

There are other dangers of button batteries.  In the United States, more than 3,500 people of all ages swallow miniature disc or “button” batteries--every year.  A CBS News Report tells us that the battery may lodge in the throat or esophagus where body fluids can erode the battery within two hours releasing its toxic metals which can damage the body's tissue.  

Information about the symptoms after swallowing a button battery are similar to the flu according to the MedLine Plus fact sheet from the National Institutes of Health.  If someone swallows a battery, immediately call the local 911, the National Button Battery Ingestion Hotline at 202-625-3333 or the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

What Do I Do with Spent Batteries?

Keep in mind that when batteries no longer operate a product, it does not mean the battery is completely dead.  So, there is a possibility that they could start a fire if stored together.  You might consider putting tape on the batteries so they do not short each other to potentially explode or cause a fire.  They can also explode when exposed to extreme heat as shown on a YouTube video (everything's on YouTube).  This is an extreme example, but I also found that batteries can explode when in metal containers such as trash cans left in direct sunlight.

Many recycling sources recommend taping the terminals on batteries prior to storing in preparation for recycling or disposal.  In the case of button batteries, you should tape the entire battery.  If you have several button batteries, you can also lay out a strip of tape with the sticky side up and place a number of button batteries on the tape so the batteries do not touch each other, and then cover them with another piece of tape--sticky side down to sandwich the batteries between the tape strips.  Place taped, spent, button batteries in a child-proof container such as a prescription bottle and store out of reach of children. 

Sometimes, retailers such as pharmacies will accept spent button batteries back.  If not, contact your municipal government or solid waste management district to find a household hazardous waste collection for your batteries.

Maybe we could live without so many button batteries, by choosing products without hazardous parts.  Want to give a singing greeting card?  Hand-deliver it and sing a tune yourself!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Family Camp & Greenwashing

Grammy & Grampa taking a break while building our camp
Today, my family met out at our lakeside camp in New Hampshire.  My grandparents built the camp in the 1950s.  Some of the lumber used to build the camp was made at my father's sawmill.  When my grandparents died, my parents bought the camp and later deeded it to my siblings and me.  It's a spectacular place right on the lake with a mountain and lots of conserved land on the other side of the lake.  This year there are two baby loons, and we heard the loons calling on and off all day.

The lake is precious to us, and we want to protect it and keep it clean.  But somehow toxic products pop up at our camp every year--potential threats to the cleanliness of the water--not to mention our own bodies.  Septic systems (and sewage treatment plants) are not designed to remove all toxins.  So these chemicals can end up in our water supplies.  Lakefront properties are more likely to pollute as there is a shorter distance from leach fields to water.  And old camps are notorious for having archaic septic systems such as holding tanks that can overflow, or even an old car body for the septic tank--really!

We were gathered on this gorgeous day at the camp to clean it and do repair work before my cousins arrive for a visit.  My mother was cleaning with a commercial cleaner that stunk up the camp.  She taught me to clean with vinegar and yet there she is with a toxic, pine-perfumed cleaner she'd found under the sink going at all the kitchen cabinets.  I acted indignant which did not help (I regress about 30 years in her presence), and I stayed outside weeding until she was finished.  There was also white vinegar which I mixed with water and used to clean walls, floors, and windows.

Poster Product for "Greenwashing"
When I looked under the sink, all kinds of toxic products had grown there since last year.  This included fabric deodorizers, furniture polish, chlorine, and ammonia.  All unnecessary in my opinion since there are nontoxic alternatives (see recipes page).   Another product under the sink was "Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner."  I think of this product as the poster product for "greenwashing."  Doesn't this name sound wonderful?  "Simple" implies that there are very few ingredients so it should be good for the environment.  And the word "green," well, nuf said.  They do not list their ingredients on the label, but it does say, "Non-Toxic" and it has the Good Housekeeping seal which provides a warranty for effectiveness, not safety.

I looked up the MSDS (materials safety data sheet) for Simple Green and found it is mostly water with other ingredients of 2-butoxyethanol, ethoxylated alcohol, tetrapotassium pyrophosphate, sodium citrate, fragrance, colorant.  There's nothing simple or green about this product which is labeled as "non-toxic." 

I'll just stick to the first ingredient after water--which is plentiful fodder for this discussion as you'll see.  The ingredient 2-butoxyethanol has several other names including butyl cellosolve.  Many products use this chemical including glass cleaners.  The U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration states that 2-butoxyethanol exposure can produce a variety of symptoms, health effects, and can affect eyes, skin, respiratory system, the central nervous systems, hematopoietic system (production of blood), blood, kidneys, liver, and lymphoid system.  I know there may be a relatively small amount of this chemical in Simple Green, but I don't know at what point it will affect me.  And if I am exposed to a bunch of other cleaners with similar or reactive ingredients, my chances of becoming ill from exposure increase.

"Greenwashing" is defined as a company spending lots of money on advertising and trying to convince us that a product is green, while they spend very few resources on trying to actually be green.

A 2010 Greenwashing Report by TerraChoice states that more than 95% of consumer products claiming to be green were found to commit "greenwashing."  Products that are tested and certified by a reliable third-party such as EcoLogo and Green Seal, make it easier to know which products are safe for you.  Careful, however, as it is possible to actually buy a "green-sounding seal" on-line for as little as 15 bucks.  How about "Green as a Frog" seal, "Pure as the Driven Snow," seal or "Sunshine in a Bottle" seal?  We could make up all kinds of catchy names for a seal that sound environmentally friendly, but don't mean a thing!  When a reputable seal is not available on a product, note if they provide a list of all ingredients--they'll tell you if it's a complete list if they have nothing to hide.  You can also check out the National Institutes of Health Household Products Database.  And of course, you can search for the MSDS on line to see for yourself what ingredients are in the product.  Can't pronounce an ingredient?  Don't buy the product unless it explains what it is and it sounds safe.

Check out the recipes page on this site to find recipes for nontoxic cleaners made with simple, green ingredients that work and won't kill you.   Vinegar, baking soda, and glycerine soap just aren't that scary! 

Next time I go out to camp, I won't be cleaning, I'll be swimming, canoeing, or just sitting on the deck enjoying the sounds and view.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Mothball Madness

I just went out by my landlord’s shed looking for my cat.  The stench from mothballs was incredible.  And there lay my kitty next to the shed inhaling those noxious fumes. 

So, I asked my landlord why he has mothballs in his shed.  He said there were so many mice in there, he had to do something.  Mothballs for mice?  Are they also "miceballs"?  I don’t think so, and even if they were, they’re still nasty, noxious poisons that I don’t want to smell.  I don’t want my cat to inhale them, I don’t want my landlord’s dog to inhale them, I don’t want the foxes that have been outside doing their weird scream inhaling them.

The National Pesticide Information Center says that mothballs, flakes, crystals, or bars are all insecticides.  (This website very clearly states that mothballs are not snake repellent—so somewhere out there, people are thinking that mothballs are actually "snakeballs.")  They are solid, but slowly release a toxic gas to kill moths and other insects.  Mothballs in the U.S. are either primarily naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene.  They’re meant to be in enclosed containers to trap the insecticidal vapors and kill any moths or moth eggs or larvae on fabric.  If mothballs are in the open (like a drafty shed), they can harm people, pets, and wildlife if they touch them, breathe the vapors, or eat them.   It is illegal to use mothballs in any way other than those for the intended use of fabric protection.  (Would someone please come arrest my landlord!  Maybe he’ll lower the rent.  Okay, I just called and talked to him, and he was very reasonable about cleaning up the shed.  I will take the mothballs to a hazardous waste collection.)

Naphthalene exposure can cause headache, nausea, dizziness, and breathing difficulties.  Eating just one mothball containing naphthalene can damage a young child’s red blood cells.  Just the length of the word “Paradichlorobenzene” should scare you!  In humans, this chemical is distributed in the blood, fat, and breast milk.  While the World Health Organization considers paradichlorobenzene to be a possible carcinogen, the Environmental Protection Agency says it is “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”   The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has found relationships between mothball use to several other chronic diseases such as Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.  I don't care what the EPA says, insecticide is poison, and it can't be a healthy thing to breathe.

OK, this is important: if you can smell mothballs, you are inhaling the insecticide.  This can cause long-term health affects.  Place these deadly orbs in an airproof container like a can with a lid and take them to a hazardous waste collection for proper disposal.

Alternatives to Mothballs

Cedar smells lovely, but it does not keep the moths away.  Cedar chests only keep moths away from your cloths because you close the chest lid to keep the moths out.  

If you're concerned about moths, place your natural fiber clothing in airtight containers or bags.  Moths don’t go for synthetics.  (I don’t either, by the way.)  But they do go for natural/synthetic blends and stains from animal sources—like blood, gravy, sweat, so don't store dirty clothes.  For existing infestations, vacuum out drawers, closets, and upholstered furniture with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate arresting) air filter vacuum cleaner.  Lint and pet or human hair that has been undisturbed can be breeding areas for moths—a really good reason to keep a clean home.

And remember, these are mothballs--they're not "miceballs," "snakeballs," "deerballs," "slugballs"...they're mothballs.  Repeat after me...........And stop snickering about all those balls--what are you, 12?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Carmelized Enamel Pot

Have you ever been cooking something and had the urge to multi-task?  Maybe you think you could just slip outside for a minute to take out the trash while you have something brewing on the stove.  Sometimes, it turns out OK, and other times you might wish you'd hung around the stove for just a minute longer.

My friend and co-worker Pat was cooking up some hummingbird sugar water on her stove, but she got distracted.  The sugar and water burned up into a lovely caramel mess stuck to her pan.  The pan is a Le Crueset which is rather expensive.  She wondered if she had destroyed her lovely pan, but she did an on-line search and came across several suggestions from e-How.  First she tried the denture cleaner method which didn't do much.  She then tried the following recipe and it removed almost all of the burnt sugar.  She did it a second time to make the pan pristine, and back to its lovely self.

I personally am a multi-tasker and have destroyed more than one tea kettle.  I will remember this recipe for the future.

Enamel Pot Cleaner Recipe
Pour two tablespoons of baking soda into the burnt enamel pot. Add two tablespoons of hydrogen peroxide, two drops of dish soap, and one cup of water. Place the pot onto the stove and turn on to low. Gently boil the solution for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the pot from heat and let it cool before using the scrub brush to remove burned-on material.