Lead acid batteries are the basic battery used to power your car's starting motor and electrical system. They are time-tested and reliable, but they must be handled with care due to the hazardous substances that are contained inside the batteries. Care must be taken when installing, removing, working around and disposing of lead-acid batteries in order to avoid injury to yourself and others. In addition, lead-acid batteries pose environmental hazards and must be disposed of properly.
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Dangerous Chemicals in Lead-Acid Batteries
The electrolyte solution in lead-acid batteries is composed of 35 per cent sulphuric acid. Sulphuric acid is a highly corrosive and poisonous liquid that causes severe chemical burns to skin and eyes. When a lead-acid battery is charged using an electrical charger, hydrogen and oxygen gases are formed, which can cause it to explode. The exploding battery releases the dangerous sulphuric acid, and the strength of the explosion can also cause the lead lining to burst.
Injuries Caused by Lead-Acid Batteries
Approximately 2,300 people in the United States are injured every year due to lead-acid batteries. Fifty per cent of these injuries are eye and facial burns caused by release of acid during battery explosions. Sulphuric acid burns are extremely difficult and painful to treat, and eye injuries due to sulphuric acid often result in permanent blindness or loss of one or both eyes. Lifting injuries are usually musculoskeletal injuries caused by improperly lifting heavy batteries.
Environmental Damage Caused by Lead-Acid Batteries
Lead-acid batteries remain hazardous to the environment even when they are spent and can no longer be used or even recharged. Lead is extremely toxic to both human beings and animals, and especially to aquatic life. In addition, the harmful sulphuric acid that remains can leak from the battery so that it enters the water, soil and air. However, lead-acid batteries are practically fully recyclable, and auto battery dealers often accept used batteries for recycling.
Preventing Lead-Acid Battery Related Injuries
Sparks that set off explosions are a main cause of lead-acid battery-related injuries. Therefore, metal instruments should never touch battery terminals. Cables should be kept clean and free of corrosion and replaced when worn. If a battery can be refilled, it must be done only with nonmetallic vessels and funnels. Only approved battery chargers in good working order should be used to recharge lead-acid batteries. Wearing a mask and protective clothing can help prevent acid-related injuries.
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- University of Wisconsin System: Safety and Loss Prevention; Lead Acid Battery Maintenance and Safety Protocol, 2006
- NC Department of Health and Human Services: Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance Program; Sulfuric Acid Facts, 2011
- Coordinating Committee for Automotive Repair: Lead-Acid Batteries