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!

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