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Mercury Rising

Local Matters


Published July 8, 2005 at 8:22 p.m.

"Batteries included" may sound like a good deal, but a coalition of environmental groups says that in some cases, the battery bonus might not be such a great thing. The Vermont Public Interest Research Group, the National Wildlife Federation and the Mercury Policy Project released a report this week warning that small, "button-cell" batteries in many children's toys contain mercury.

The report was timed to draw attention to mercury exposure in the weeks before the new legislative session, when Vermont lawmakers will likely consider tough new mercury regulations. The neurotoxin can cause central nervous system disorders and developmental birth defects in children. Some researchers have also linked it to a rise in autism. The Environmental Protection Agency has recognized an alarming increase in mercury exposure -- the EPA estimates that one in six U.S. women of childbearing age currently has unsafe mercury levels that threaten her potential offspring.

The coalition's recent report spotlights the many small toys that light up or make noise -- such as the blinking reindeer noses at Wal-Mart, or the blinking reindeer antlers at Bed, Bath & Beyond -- which contain mercury batteries. Katherine Bowes of the NWF says these toys are ubiquitous. "Everything blinks," she says. "The more you realize how prevalent these batteries are, the more you realize how ridiculous it is."

VPIRG environmental advocate Ben Davis calls mercury "the new lead." He says that often the tiny mercury batteries are embedded in toys and impossible to remove or replace. That's the case, he says, with the Blink Blink Candy Sucker, a plastic lollipop with a mercury battery center, available at Wal-Mart.

Davis says his concern is not that kids will swallow the battery, but that their parents will eventually toss it in the trash. "They end up in landfills, where they represent mercury exposure 30 years in the future, sooner if they're incinerated," Davis says.

He claims that manufacturers have been slow to adopt affordable non-mercury alternatives, and says they actually used more mercury in 2002 -- 5000 pounds -- than in 2001, when they used 4000. "Mercury is available, it's cheap, and it works," he says. "Until [these batteries] are banned, they're going to keep selling them." Keep that in mind when you're shopping for the little one.

Vermont wouldn't be the first state to ban the sale of novelty toys containing mercury batteries -- New Hampshire and Connecticut have already done it. Davis notes that Vermont took the lead nationally in recognizing the mercury threat in 1998, when it passed a mercury labeling law. The law exempts products containing the button-cell batteries.

Davis blames Vermont's inaction since then largely on the Energizer Battery plant in Bennington. Energizer spokesman Michael Babiak says the company does indeed oppose a ban on mercury batteries, but he also says that the batteries they produce contain only small amounts of mercury.

Babiak claims that Energizer is working to eliminate its reliance on heavy metals; in fact, he says they've reduced their total heavy metal content by 99 percent. And he argues that while Energizer has begun to sell "no-mercury-added" batteries, "Energizer does not expect widespread availability of legitimate and viable alternatives in the near term."

Babiak adds that Energizer is the "last major manufacturer" of some types of mercury-added button-cell batteries, and that a ban would hurt the Bennington plant, the company's only button-cell manufacturing facility. The plant employs 200 people.

Banning the sale of mercury batteries is actually a small item on VPIRG's Christmas list. The group is advocating for a variety of new restrictions, including replacing mercury manometers, installing mercury amalgam traps in dentists' office sinks, and toughening the state's fish consumption advisories.

State Senator Ginny Lyons, Democratic chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, says she's "thrilled" that VPIRG is making mercury legislation a priority. She says advocacy groups like VPIRG and the National Wildlife Federation can contribute information and scientific research that would be otherwise unavailable to busy lawmakers.

A long-time champion of mercury legislation, Lyons says she thinks that this will be the year that it passes. To support her claim, she cites the change in House leadership -- where Democrats regained the majority -- and the fact that other states have already paved the way.