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The negative side of batteries

Whether waiting to crank up a vehicle or fit only for recycling, the acid inside presents a real danger.

April 26, 2006|Jeanne Wright | Special to The Times

Do you have hazardous waste on your property? You do if you have an old car or boat battery lurking in the garage or languishing among the weeds in your backyard.

Get rid of it now. Storing old vehicle batteries inside homes, garages or elsewhere on your property is dangerous in many ways. Leaking battery acid can poison and burn children, adults and animals if they come in contact with the hazardous sulfuric acid.

Used batteries also pose a threat to the environment, "an often overlooked aspect of responsible vehicle ownership," says Bill Howell, battery service manager for the Automobile Club of Southern California. Soil and water can be contaminated when the battery acid seeps into the ground and water sources. The pollution can affect the supply of drinking water. If batteries are dumped near the ocean, the sulfuric acid and lead could endanger marine life, Howell says.

In a nationwide campaign to protect people and the environment from injuries, damage and pollution related to batteries, the Auto Club has been collecting and recycling dead batteries during its "Great Battery Roundup" this month.

Today is the last day AAA-approved recycling locations will accept used batteries. However, consumers may continue to drop off old batteries through May 3 at any of the 100 tow truck services listed on the Auto Club's website (

It is illegal in California to dispose of engine batteries on your own in dumps, vacant lots, alleys or backyards, according to Ron Baker of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control in Sacramento.

"We consider [old batteries] to be hazardous waste," Baker says. Although the maximum fine is rarely imposed, under the law violators could be fined up to $25,000 a day, depending on the severity and frequency of dumping.

Nationwide, 95% of car and boat batteries are recycled each year. But that still leaves 5% -- or 5 million -- used batteries that are not recycled and could contaminate waterways or homes, according to the auto club. Since 98% of the material can be recycled, health and environmental experts urge people to recycle used batteries.

For every used battery returned to the recycling sites, AAA-approved auto repair facilities and Roadside Emergency Service Towing contractors, the service will donate $1.50 to LA Surfbus, a group that provides first-time beach trips and marine science education to low-income children. The group was founded by former surfing champion Mary Setterholm.

Batteries pose a danger at any time. The most recent comprehensive study on car battery-related injuries was released almost 10 years ago by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

At that time, the study estimated more than 7,000 people were treated annually in hospital emergency rooms for injuries that involved car battery explosions, chemical burns, contamination resulting from being splashed with battery acid and electrical shocks involving battery cables or posts. The study estimated that 32%, or 2,280 people, were injured in battery explosions.

According to statistics cited in 2002 by Prevent Blindness America, a volunteer health and safety organization, there were thousands of eye injuries related to automotive products. Batteries and chargers accounted for the highest total.

In another study conducted in 1990 by the Greater Detroit Society for the Blind, an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 people per year suffered eye injuries resulting from exploding car batteries.

Car-battery explosions are often caused by improper procedures in jump-starting a dead battery, Howell says.

To jump-start a vehicle, consider these safety tips:

* Check your battery for cracks, corrosion and loose wires every time you change your oil.

* Wear splash-proof polycarbonate goggles when jump-starting a battery.

* Never smoke or use anything that may spark when working on the battery. (Car batteries contain gases that can ignite and explode.)

* Make sure your jumper cables are not rusted or corroded and there are no exposed wires on the cables.

* Never use electrical tape to cover exposed wires.

* Don't jump the vehicle if your car's fluids are frozen.

* Purchase a battery that is recommended in your car owner's manual.

In purchasing a new battery, beware of bargain batteries that do not meet a vehicle manufacturer's specifications, says Elaine Beno of the Auto Club.

If you purchase an under-powered battery, for example, it could cause damage to other electrical components in the vehicle. Beno also says that because battery "freshness" is important to how long it will last, look for a battery that has a guarantee it is not older than 90 days. The average life expectancy of a vehicle battery is three to four years.

Beno advises consumers who are transporting batteries to wear leather or protective disposable gloves and safety glasses. She also advises keeping batteries upright and placing them in sturdy boxes or plastic containers. If the battery case is cracked or leaking, use a leak-proof container.

If battery chemicals do get into someone's eye, immediately flush the eye with water or any drinkable fluid, says Sarah Hecker, spokeswoman for Prevent Blindness America.

Hold the eye under a faucet or shower or pour water into the eye using a clean container. Keep the eye open as wide as possible and continue flushing for at least 15 minutes. Do not rub or bandage the eye. Seek immediate medical attention, she says.


Jeanne Wright can be reached at

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