Japan moves to curb pollution caused by batteries

Growing sales of battery-powered cameras, watches, hearing aids, cassette tape recorders, and a host of other portable electrical appliances which use dry cell batteries here indirectly pose a major pollution threat.

The problem, for local and national authorities, is how to safely dispose of these batteries, which contain high concentrations of mercury. Last year alone, 3 billion dry cell batteries were produced in Japan.

In a trend-setting move, manufacturers and retailers reached agreement with the Tokyo government on retrieval of used batteries for recycling.

As a result of this agreement, the public will be encouraged to use an estimated 111,000 retrieval boxes set up in electrical appliance shops throughout the nation.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare has also asked local authorities to mount major publicity campaigns warning of the harmful environmental effects of casual disposal of used batteries.

The city of Yokohama has just launched the nation's first organized pick-up program for used batteries as part of its regular garbage collection.

The Battery and Appliances Association says all dry cell batteries in use today, whether of the alkali or manganese type, use mercury to make them last longer.

The highest concentrations of mercury are in the button-type silver batteries used in cameras, quartz watches, and hearing aids, for example. And these are the main object of the industry retrieval campaign. Some 23 million units of them were produced in 1982, the Health Ministry says.

According to government officials, only 20 percent of such batteries are currently being recovered after use.

But the solution ultimately seems to lie in the elimination of mercury.

The agreement between the industry and government contains a provision for the amount of mercury to be reduced to one-third of present levels within three years while research continues into development of mercury-free batteries that can still offer the benefits of long-life and stability.

Last year, the Tokyo metropolitan government's Research Institute for Environmental Protection checked smokestack emissions at the capital's waste incinerators. It found mercury levels averaging 0.05 to 0.15 milligrams per cubic meter (pcm), with highest readings of 0.5 milligrams pcm.

The World Health Organization sets the safety level of atmospheric mercury at 0.015 milligrams pcm.

Japan has been sensitive to mercury poisoning ever since the 1960s, when mercury in factory waste emitted into Minamata Bay in western Japan polluted fish and led to the deaths of hundreds of people with several thousand more left crippled.

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