Batteries, Neurotoxins and Green Food

The Rundown on Hazardous Waste, Pine Sol and Companies that Care

Household batteries are often discarded on the ground and near or even in water sources. What is the impact of this, and what would be the ideal disposal method?

—Tom Shamrell, Brattleboro, VT

Chris Murphy Illustration

Unfortunately, most of the estimated 750 million alkaline batteries sold each year to power our radios, flashlights and Walkmans are landfilled and incinerated, not recycled. The chemicals in batteries-particularly mercury and cadmium-present a major health hazard if they leak from their corroded metal jackets. Mercury damages the kidneys and central nervous system; cadmium is a probably human carcinogen, and can also affect kidney and lung function. In spite of this, only six states-Alaska, California, Minnesota, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Washington-classify alkaline batteries as hazardous waste. One indirect solution is offered by Duracell, whose batteries list an 800 number (800-551-2355) to be used by consumers who want a post-paid zip-lock bag for free return and recycling.

Another solution is rechargeables. Radio Shack has joined forces with the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC) to set up in-store collection points for worn-out nickel-cadmium batteries. And the California-based Real Goods sells a solar powered recharger that works with both rechargeable nickel-cadmium and alkaline batteries. Regardless of your home state’s attitude on batteries, you should contact your town’s solid waste office to see if there are any scheduled Hazardous Waste Collection Days. Batteries awaiting recycling must be stored separately from other hazardous materials in a cool and dry area.


Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation
PO Box 141870
Gainesville, FL 32614-1870
Tel. (352) 376-5135

Real Goods
555 Leslie Street
Ukiah, CA 95482-5576
Tel. (800) 762-7325

I’ve been using Pine Sol for years to clean my house for some time. Could you enlighten me on just how toxic this product is?

—Mark L. Quire, Nederland, CO

Before tackling the specific nature of household cleaning products that contain pine oil, it should be pointed out that many all-purpose cleaners contain chemicals that by themselves are not carcinogenic, but may form carcinogens in combination with other substances. David Steinman, co-author of The Safe Shopper’s Bible, believes that consumers are not always aware of these harmful chemicals because “the labeling is so inadequate.”

There are several products on the market that contain pine oil-a weak allergen that can cause central nervous system disorders in very large doses. By itself, pine oil should not cause a problem unless the user is chemically sensitive. Some pine oil products contain chemicals that can be neurotoxic (damaging to the nervous system) and may even be fatal. Either isopropyl alcohol or butyl cellsolve, which are both known to be neurotoxic, can be found in most Pine Sol products, Pine Magic II Multi-Purpose Cleaner, Spic n’ Span Pine Cleaner Liquid and Lysol Pine Action Cleaner. Looking for alternatives? The Earth Friendly cleaning line-designed to attack everything from soiled laundry to greasy wall stains-is made entirely of biodegradable materials, was not tested on animals, and is completely non-toxic to users. All that also applies to Shadow Lake’s Citra-Solv, an excellent cleaner and solvent.


Earth Friendly
855 Lively Boulevard
Wood Dale, IL 60191-2688
Tel. (630) 595-1900

PR With a Purpose
c/o Washington Toxics Coalition
516 University Way NE
Seattle, WA 98105
Tel. (206) 632-1545

Shadow Lake
PO Box 2597
Danbury, CT 06813
Tel. (203) 778-0881

I am a deep believer in sustainable agriculture, but I’m concerned that some companies are in business solely to reap the benefits of an expanding market. Which companies should I support?

—Michael Faber, Acton, MA

Under current marketing regulations, food packaging can use the word “organic” without any proof that organic conditions actually existed. However, federal adoption of National Organic Standards-expected soon-will vastly improve the situation. Until then, says Jim Smillie of the Organic Trade Association, “The most important thing is to look for the certification label on packaged foods and produce.”

Certification ensures that no chemicals were used in growing your food, but what about social responsibility? Some companies, like macaroni-makers Annie’s Homegrown, exhibit their ethical side by donating a percentage of their profits to environmental causes. Ben and Jerry’s, for instance, gives to rainforest preservation and efforts to save Lake Champlain, and uses only rBGH-free dairy products from Vermont farmers. Usually the packaging displays this information, though this approach, too, can be a marketing ploy.

Supporters of sustainable farming should investigate joining a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) co-op. These partnerships between small organic farms and local consumers are formed by members who buy seasonal “shares” in the year’s crops. Agricultural economies are strengthened as members get a steady supply of produce, meat and baked goods from neighboring farmers. CSAs also contribute positively by developing community compost centers and donating surplus foodstuffs to soup kitchens.


Organic Trade Association
PO Box 1078
Greenfield, MA 02238
Tel. (413) 774-7511