What You Need to Know About Rechargeable Batteries, Lead in Bathtubs and Beneficial Insects

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Rechargeable batteries

I want to use rechargeable batteries to save money and reduce landfill waste, but I am totally confused. When I go to the store I can’t figure out what to buy.

If you are going to use batteries, rechargeables are the way to go. The energy price tag for disposable batteries can range from $400 to $1,000 per kilowatt hour, compared to less than $1 per kilowatt hour for rechargeable batteries. With a solar-powered recharger, once you pay for the charger and the batteries, the energy is free!

There are two kinds of rechargeable batteries: nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cad) and nickel metal hydride (NiMH). Ni-Cads are the most widely sold type. While they are a better choice than disposable batteries, Ni-Cads are made from toxic metals that need to be disposed of properly. They can be recharged approximately 750 times.

Nickel metal hydride batteries are made without heavy metals. Their high energy density delivers up to twice the energy of Ni-Cad batteries. The downsides are that NiMHs generally have shorter run times and shorter life expectancies than Ni-Cads. NiMHs are usually good for only 400 cycles.

Batteries and rechargers can be found at specialty electronics stores such as Radio Shack, and online at Real Goods (www.realgoods.com). Rechargeable Ni-Cad batteries and lead-acid batteries must be disposed of at hazardous waste facilities. NiMH batteries are the best of both worlds–rechargeable and environmentally safe.

Through the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), more than 300 communities in the United States and Canada and more than 30,000 retail locations collect and recycle all portable rechargeable batteries, including Ni-Cad, Ni-MH, Lithium Ion (Li-Ion), and Small Sealed Lead (PBS) rechargeable batteries. To locate your nearest battery drop-off, call (800) 822-8837 or check out www.rbrc.org.

Lead in bathtubs

I just read that bathtubs can be a source of lead exposure. Is this true? How do I know if my bathtub contains lead? And what can I do about it if it does?

Awareness of lead in bathtubs was first reported in 1995 on the television show Good Morning America. A family using a LeadCheck Swabs home test kit discovered the danger, and a few months after the children stopped using the tub, the levels of lead in their blood decreased. Following this discovery, Unique Refinishers of Atlanta began to test bathtubs that it was refinishing. According to the company, up to 70 percent of the cast iron and steel tubs manufactured before 1984 are leaching lead. Manufacturers stopped using lead to make tubs in 1984.

Lead leaching most frequently occurs when abrasion breaks the surface of the porcelain and allows lead out. Some tubs, however, can leach lead through apparently unabraded surfaces. If proper temperature is not maintained during firing, the coating does not form an impenetrable barrier.

The only way to know for sure is to use a home test kit such as LeadCheck Swabs (available at many hardware and home improvement stores and from www.leadcheck.com).

The good news is that experts say this source of lead represents significant exposure only to very young children, especially those who tend to “drink” the water during bath time. Reglazing the tub will safely encapsulate the lead. Though this operation requires the use of toxic chemicals, the final glazing is inert and effectively protects against lead exposure.

Beneficial insects

When I go to the nursery, I often see ladybugs for sale. Do I need to buy them for my garden? How will they help?

Ladybugs belong to a group of biological pest controls known as “beneficial insects.” Instead of eating plants that humans wish to eat, they help us control insects that otherwise consider our gardens to be their own private produce stand.

Because there are so many beneficial insects, it is wise to learn which bugs to encourage and which to eliminate. For example, some beneficial insects, such as damselflies and dragonflies, praying mantises, and spined soldier bugs, eat every insect in sight, both good and bad. Others have very specific tastes–ladybugs adore aphids, for example–so you can use them to fight a specific pest without affecting other good bugs. Still others don’t kill bad bugs, but provide other benefits.

Many beneficial insects can be purchased at your local nursery or from mail order sources. Literature descriptions and labels will help you match beneficials to your garden’s needs.

Some beneficials have the environmental downside of being collected from the wild in a less-than-sustainable manner. Ladybugs sold commercially, for example, are collected as they cluster together by the thousands when the weather turns cold. Wild ladybugs are often infected with parasites. And when they are sold without being preconditioned (a procedure that involves feeding them in an enclosed tent), they often fly away from the gardens where they are released.

Be cautious about purchasing and introducing living insects and organisms into your garden’s ecosystem. It may be illegal to release some insects and organisms in your area. There are also no guarantees that the species of insect or organism you release will want to eat the pests on the plants you hope to save, because different species have different food preferences.

The best way to bring beneficial insects and organisms to your garden is to attract and conserve the beneficials already there. Welcome them with the right kind of plants. The hybridized bedding plants found in many nurseries have lost most of the characteristics that attract insects. Flowering herbs and wildflowers are the best choices. Try baby blue eyes, baby’s breath, buckwheat, carrots, clover, coriander (cilantro), cosmos, dill, goldenrod, lavender, lemon balm, lovage, marigolds, mustard, nasturtiums, parsley, spearmint, sunflowers, sweet alyssum, tansy, thyme, and native wildflowers.

Also provide a water source for beneficials, shelter from wind, rain, and sun, and a few rocks and boards for them to hide under.

My favorite book on this subject is Good Bugs for Your Garden, by Allison Mia Starcher (Algonquin Books, 1995).

DEBRA LYNN DADD is an internationally known expert on healthy home environments and author of Home, Safe Home (Putnam, 1997).