Environmental Hazards of Batteries

People are using more and more household batteries. The average person owns about two button batteries, ten normal (A, AA, AAA, C, D, 9V, etc.) batteries, and throws out about eight household batteries per year. About three billion batteries are sold annually in the U.S. averaging about 32 per family or ten per person.

A battery is an electrochemical device with the ability to convert chemical energy to electrical energy to provide power to electronic devices. Batteries may contain cadmium, mercury, copper, zinc, lead, manganese, nickel, and lithium which may create a hazard when disposed incorrectly.

Batteries may produce the following potential problems or hazards:

  • Pollute the lakes and streams as the metals vaporize into the air when burned.
  • Contribute to heavy metals that potentially may leach from solid waste landfills.
  • Expose the environment and water to lead and acid.
  • Contain strong corrosive acids.
  • May cause burns or danger to eyes and skin.

In landfills, heavy metals have the potential to leach slowly into soil, groundwater or surface water. Dry cell batteries contribute about 88 percent of the total mercury and 50 percent of the cadmium in the municipal solid waste stream. In the past, batteries accounted for nearly half of the mercury used in the United States and over half of the mercury and cadmium in the municipal solid waste stream. When burned, some heavy metals such as mercury may vaporize and escape into the air, and cadmium and lead may end up in the ash.

Types and Uses of Household Batteries

There are two types of batteries:

  1. primary — those that can not be reused, and
  2. secondary — those that can be reused.

Primary batteries include alkaline/manganese, carbon-zinc, mercuric-oxide, zinc-air, silver-oxide, and other types of button batteries. Secondary batteries (rechargeable) include lead-acid, nickel-cadmium, and potentially nickel-hydrogen.

Typical Types of Household Batteries
Primary Cells
Common Uses
Cassettes players, radios, appliances
Flashlights, toys, etc.
Cameras, calculators, watches, computers, etc.
Hearing aids, pacemakers, cameras, calculators, watches, etc.
Hearing aids, watches, cameras, calculators
Hearing aids, pagers
Secondary Cells
Common Uses
Cameras, rechargeable appliances such as portable power tools, handheld vacuums, etc.
Small sealed lead-acid
Camcorders, computers, portable radios, and tape players, cellular phones, lawnmower starters, etc.
*Some rechargeable alkaline batteries available.