Batteries put to the test: too many heavy metals, faulty labelling

Accumulators get best rating

A whole range of batteries have excessively high heavy metal content. In addition, the presence of these heavy metals is often not labelled. These are the conclusions of a new study done on behalf of the Federal Environment Agency (UBA). UBA President Jochen Flasbarth says: "The contamination in many of the tested zinc-coal batteries is exceedingly high: nearly half of them exceed the limit for cadmium. The Federal Environment Agency recommends the use of alkaline manganese batteries instead. Moreover, use of the inefficient form of battery-powered energy should be avoided whenever possible. Accumulators, such as the lithium-ion type, are clearly the better choice."

Heavy metals are harmful to people, animals and plants, therefore only very small amounts are allowed in batteries. They must be labelled as a component if their amount exceeds the threshold values stated in the Batteries Act. The latest test for heavy metals examined 300 off-the-shelf batteries and accumulators for their contents of mercury (Hg), cadmium (Cd) and lead (Pb) and for their corresponding labelling. The results of the study have been issued to the regional government authorities for the market surveillance.

Lithium-ion batteries – for example used in mobile phones – had the lowest heavy metal content, along with alkaline manganese batteries. Results were much worse for zinc-coal round cells – the type used in remote control or torches. Nearly half of them contained higher levels of cadmium than the allowed limit of 20mg/kg. The cadmium level in one battery make and the mercury content in another each exceeded the respective threshold value by a factor of eight.

The test also revealed poor labelling practices: Batteries and accumulators with heavy metal content must be labelled with the appropriate chemical symbols 'Hg', 'Cd' and 'Pb' if binding threshold values are exceeded. The study determined that this practice is deficient implemented. The labelling for mercury (Hg) was lacking on nearly half of the tested button cells despite their proven exceedance of the established threshold value. In addition, some of the button cells labelled as mercury-free proved to contain between 0.4 and 2 percent mercury. Half of the batteries that should have been labelled for lead (Pb) also lacked appropriate labelling.

On a positive note: the alkaline manganese batteries and lithium-ion accumulators in the test had heavy metal contents below the legal threshold value, which therefore did not require any labelling.

In general, the Federal Environment Agency recommends to replace regular batteries with accumulators if this is technically possible. In addition to their contamination with heavy metals, the energy balance of batteries is a great drawback. The manufacture of batteries requires 40 to 500 times more energy than the battery itself provides. This is good reason to seek out products that are not battery-operated. The Blue Angel quality seal is one such point of reference. UBA is also providing a free guidebook with helpful tips about batteries and accumulators (see “Batterien und Akkus” (in German)).

Umweltbundesamt Hauptsitz

Wörlitzer Platz 1
06844 Dessau-Roßlau
Germany