Summer in my area brings its share of fireworks. Not the stuff you see on July 4th, but massive collisions of hot and cold air masses that then create mammoth thunderstorms.
I'm not convinced that our area is especially unusual in this respect, but I am fairly clear about the result. The next newscast will inevitably discuss closed roads and how many inches fell at some elementary school 30 miles away.
This was all fairly academic until last night, when the mother of all thunderstorms rolled across our neighborhood. A nearby transformer blew up, making a sound last heard during artillery practice long ago.
Then a live wire came down a few doors from our house, flaming brightly in the night air, a violation of local ordinances which prohibit sparklers ... .
The result of such events, of course, was an instant and dramatic loss of electricity. Every house in the neighborhood was suddenly dark.
Since monster thunderstorms are a normal event, we had taken the usual precaution of physically unplugging computers from wall sockets and telephone wires before the big bang, so no problems there.
But flashlights were a problem. Not one battery-operated flashlight worked.
But what did work was a cranky flashlight; that is, a flashlight with no batteries and a crank. I have become a fan of such devices for several reasons:
- They always work.
- They do not require endless numbers of additional batteries to operate.
- You don't have to worry about batteries in a hurricane, storm, cyclone or other emergency.
- You can keep them in the car.
- In addition to a light they often have a built-in radio.
- No batteries go into a landfill.
Batteries, it turns out, are an environment worry -- but not all batteries. Virtually all car and truck batteries are recovered. The EPA reports that we recovered 1.3 million tons or nonferrous metal in 2005, "with most of this being lead recovered from batteries. It was estimated that 99 percent of battery lead was recovered in 2005." (See: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2005, EPA, page 47)
As to household batteries, that's a different story. We love household batteries. We buy 'em by the box. We sell them everywhere. And year-after-year they run out of power, often at the very moment when the need is greatest.
The state of Ohio, using EPA figures, reports that "Americans purchase more than two billion household batteries a year to power radios, clocks, toys, computers, power tools, and other home electronics.
Because most of these batteries are not rechargeable, when they are used up they go to landfills or incinerators. This practice causes concern because most batteries contain metals that are potentially toxic, such as mercury, cadmium and nickel. As the batteries decay in the landfill, these metals have the potential of leaching into drinking water. Incineration may cause vaporization into the air of metals such as mercury. Other metals, such as cadmium and lead, can concentrate in the ash produced."
Well, who cares, you might ask. Actually, you should. Ohio also says:
"The single largest source of mercury in garbage is household batteries, especially alkaline and button batteries. Mercury is a heavy metal with high toxicity. Long-term exposure can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and fetuses. The major way people get exposed to mercury is by eating mercury-contaminated food, especially fish.
"One way of reducing the amount of mercury going to landfills, and reducing the risk of drinking water contamination, is to reduce the amount of mercury in batteries. Manufacturers of alkaline batteries have already made the commitment to eventually eliminate mercury from batteries. However, mercury is an integral part of button batteries, and cannot be eliminated."
In California, according to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, the State Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has ruled that "consumers can no longer legally dispose of primary batteries -- those standard size alkaline batteries (AAA, AA, C, and D) used most often -- in their household trash. The DTSC has defined these batteries as 'universal waste' (a category of hazardous waste that is generally considered to be 'less hazardous' in California."
"Nowhere else in the country," says NEMA, "are primary batteries considered to be 'hazardous' or 'universal' wastes."
I'm not sure that banning household batteries from landfills makes much practical sense, given that we sell battery-based flashlights in grocery stores, hardware outlets and just about everywhere else. You have to wonder: What do law-abiding citizens in California do with their used batteries? Are there guards along the Arizona, Nevada and Oregon borders that search incoming cars for batteries?
You can get battery-free flashlights for your home or car on the Internet, but as a matter of good ecological balance every place selling battery-powered flashlights should also sell wind-up models. I've gone into store-after-store and not found a single crank-operated unit. Consumers in such circumstances are stuck with an outdated and costly technology and that's not right -- especially when the winds come heavy and nature lights up the night.