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EARTHWATCH : Powerful Advice : Rechargeable batteries can be a lifesaver for electronic equipment and landfills.


Rechargeable batteries could have saved everybody a bunch of trouble.

When the batteries in my daughter's Walkman died during a long trip, well, it was like running out of gas in Death Valley. The same question arose, "Are we going to survive this?" (We had no new batteries, the car stereo wasn't working, how was she going to listen to her Paula Abdul tapes? It was the end of the world.)

Drivers have learned after they have run out of gas a few times to check their car gas meters and tank up in advance. It becomes a kind of reflex and you stay on top of the situation. Well, now kids can take the same measures with their battery-powered devices.

Portable tape players are now being sold with rechargeable batteries that have a recharger included in the package. In the same way we avoid the trauma of running out of gas at a terribly inconvenient time (I've never run out of gas when it was convenient, have you?), our children now can avoid Paula Abdul deprivation while learning to plan ahead.

Now, the night before a trip, we tank up the car and the kids slap their rechargeable batteries into the recharger unit and stick it in the wall plug. Actually, the recharger is always in the wall plug and we have a duplicate set of batteries being switched between it and the Walkman. The daily changing of the guard. Those little batteries last only a few hours, whether store-bought or rechargeable. If, as a parent, you ever go anywhere without backup or preparation, there's going to be a scene.

What does this have to do with anybody but me? Well, it seems that Detroit can't use its new $30,000,000 trash-burning electric plant because of batteries. That city gets its share of the 2 billion batteries Americans buy and throw out each year. But in Detroit the trash was going up in smoke to generate electric power. The mercury in the batteries that burned with the trash also went up in smoke, into the air of the Midwest.

Well, the Environmental Protection Agency discovered an old and still very true health concern. Prolonged contact with mercury fumes will drive you nuts. Mercury poisoning, which hatters encountered from treating felt products in the old days, resulted in the expression "mad as a hatter." And so, by burning trash every day that includes discarded batteries, Detroit was on the way to driving itself (as well as Ontario, Ohio and everyone else downwind) crazy.

Rechargeable batteries are not a throwaway item. They can last as long as five years and be recharged a thousand times. We don't have the Detroit problem in California . . . yet. But one of the reasons we've been fighting landfills in our county is that throwaway batteries corrode and break up, leaking mercury. Until this year, ground-water monitoring has detected no adverse effects related to heavy metals such as mercury, said Wayne Bruce, general manager of the Ventura County Regional Sanitation Bureau. "Looking to the future," he said "it's going to become a problem unless we begin separating batteries out of the waste stream now."

This can be done by using rechargeables and by participating in a new program in the works to recycle throwaways.

* THE DETAILS: Rechargeables are available at Radio Shack throughout the county and at Adray's and Everything Electronic. Many tape players come with rechargers. Rechargeables exist for everything that uses batteries. On June 23, the county is having a hazardous waste and battery collection, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Oxnard city yard, 1060 Pacific Ave. Oxnard. For information, call 658-4664 for a 24-hour recorded tape.

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