Poison: The High Cost Of Cheap Batteries

Cadmium batteries are cheap and safe to use, but hazardous to manufacture. They’ll save you money—about $1.50 for the average cadmium-powered toy, says the Wall Street Journal.

But cadmium batteries can be hazardous to make. In southern China, Wang Fengping worked for years in plants that produced cadmium batteries for the likes of Mattel Inc., Toys “R” Us Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Like hundreds of her colleagues, Ms. Wang regularly inhaled the toxic red cadmium dust that filled the air in the plant.

Now, at 45, Ms. Wang is often too weak to walk. Her kidneys have failed, and her doctors have identified cadmium poisoning as the likely culprit. About 400 other workers at her former employer, Hong Kong-based GP Batteries International Ltd., have been found to harbor unsafe levels of cadmium, a toxic metal like mercury and lead that can cause kidney failure, lung cancer and bone disease.

Ms. Wang didn’t manufacture the batteries. She was a machine designer with an engineering degree. Most of her career was spent in an office, sketching designs, then between 2002-2004 she spent long hours in the production facilities, inhaling cadmium dust. Now she’s sick. The WSJ article details her lawsuit against the manufacturer as well as the history of cadmium battery production in the U.S. and the resulting clean-up of contaminated sites.

Some toy-makers, like Hasbro, have eschewed the use of cadmium in their products because of their toil on the environment and the health of the workers who manufacture the batteries. Mattel, however, still uses cadmium batteries, claiming that they have “performance advantages.” Walmart says it doesn’t buy or use cadmium batteries produced by the manufacturer that employed Ms. Wang, but declined to comment further.

Toxic Factories Take Toll On China’s Labor Force [Wall Street Journal] (Thanks, Aaron!)
Ms. Wang’s Blog [Yahoo!]


Edit Your Comment

  1. econobiker says:

    I have said it before and will say it again:

    In the future the USA will be on the health and environmental clean-up hook by the United Nations due to our consumers purchasing goods made in places with non-existant H&E laws. The Walton family (for example) will have made their billions and walked away from the problem leaving the end consumers to pay the price. This is in addition to the direct H&E safety issues like lead paint on toys, substandard auto-parts, etc.

    Pay me now or pay me later…

  2. inspiron says:

    Do they mean nickel cadmium batteries? I’ve never heard of just cadmium batteries.

  3. DrGirlfriend says:

    Mattel: Performance advantages outweigh worker safety

  4. inspiron says:

    Well for a communist country you figure china would have some kind of law or rule to make sure the place was properly vented or that the workers had respirators and were isolated from the rest of the plant…but they did not

    Maybe the plant should have known there may have been some kind of danger with the cadmium and done something about it but no…

    For an engineer like herself maybe she should have figured that breathing in that crazy red dust would be affecting her health but continued to work there.

    When no one else is looking after you the responsibility is yours to protect your self, she did not do that and I do not sympathize with her.

  5. Rando says:

    I just ordered that 50 pack of batteries from batteries.com for $11.

    Thx consumerist for the link and thank you for giving your life to make my goods cheap, china. XOXOX

  6. AlteredBeast (blaming the OP one article at a time.) says:

    This is one of those cases where everyone would benifit for the manufacturer being in the United States. It would generate jobs, the work environment would be safer (perhaps not even making that type of battery). In fact, people would be more aware of the saftey hazards for that type of battery, as it is happening to U.S. citizens, and it might get phazed out. While it would cost more for the toys, it would balance out by having more overall income for the country, less unemployment.

    Of course, this might be all naive of me, just a thought.

  7. nweaver says:

    On rechargeables, it is pick your poison (literally).

    Do you want cheap & reliable (but toxic to make) NiCad batteries?

    Or expensive and flammable and difficult to charge LiIon batteries?

  8. Applekid ┬──┬ ノ( ゜-゜ノ) says:

    @nweaver: NiMH?

  9. unklegwar says:

    @inspiron: They have no incentive to put any safety measures in place. It’ll cut into their profits. China has a practically infinite supply of workers willing to come to the city to replace Wang. When people are that numerous and disposable, why should anyone care?

    Answer? Stop looking only as far as your own wallet and Boycott the Chinese Poison Train in every way possible.

    Cheap inferior dangerous goods are no bargain. Especially in the long run.

  10. Landru says:

    What a dick.
    People in China are not educated to the risks, and that’s the reason things are so cheap to make there. They haven’t the years of experience (and disasters) that we have with these materials. It sounds like they will learn.

  11. Froggmann says:

    @nweaver: Or Spontanelusly-exploding Li-Po batteries.

  12. Dibbler says:

    I’m confused by the whole Mattel toys thing. Since when did toys include batteries?

    @LANDRU: If she’s an engineer she should have the basic chemistry skills. Saying that she’s “just not educated” doesn’t make any sense.

  13. SaraAB87 says:

    I find GP batteries in almost every toy and product you buy from a store shelf that has batteries included in it.

  14. dgcaste says:

    @Dibbler: You’re a moron.

  15. cerbie says:

    @DrGirlfriend: performance advantages is a PR cover. Except for not dying as easily from heat, the only advantage to NiCd now is cost. And by heat, I mean being too hot to hold, and maybe hot enough to immediately burn you. Run of the mill NIMH, LSD NIMH (Eneloop, Hybrd), and high capacity NIMH cells are far superior to NiCd.

    Sometimes there are other benefits to paying a little more than just performance on the face of it. You can still get NiCd cordless phones from dollar stores, right now. I didn’t know that until just a few months ago–I’ve been using them with NIMH for over 10 years, now.

  16. chili_dog says:

    At some point our species will make another jump in technology and change the environment, for the better. This has gone on since man walked upright. Sure it sucks for the people who are screwed today, but this is life.

    Just look at America in 1865. No antibiotics, basic medical care and no OSHA. WE have progressed, so will the rest of the world, but lets face facts: The 1st use of Ether as an anesthetic was in 1842 and today we can replace the heart. It’s gonna take some time.

  17. Nemesis_Enforcer says:

    @dgcaste: No he ahs a point. If even the “educated” class of workers doesen’t have a clue about work place dangers than they are really trying to keep the workers as dumb as possible.

    When you have a unlimited supply of workers why would they give a crap about safety.

  18. dgcaste says:

    @Nemesis_Enforcer: He’s rebutting the idea that she’s uneducated with the plain logic that it “doesn’t make sense”. Which makes him a moron, since 1- it’s possible for her to be uneducated (which is your point) and 2- uses very weak logic.

  19. jackhandey says:

    Really, really sad. Just one of many examples of this kind of thing.

    I guarantee the CFL bulbs made in China will be exposed for the same kind of problems. I am sure they are handling the mercury just as responsibly as the cadmium over there…

  20. Xerloq says:

    @jackhandey: Mercury makes for a tasty, shiny drink!

    Mercury is the new cadmium is the new lead.

  21. darkclawsofchaos says:

    @xerloq: that stuff is heavy and quick, its about as heavy as steel and when compared to water, water moves like cold maple syrup compared to this stuff

  22. darkclawsofchaos says:

    @darkclawsofchaos: so basically is like having a steelrod shoved down your throat, not that you’ll live that long anyway though…

  23. ShadowFalls says:


    Ever heard of Ni-MH?
    Perhaps the Wiki will help you:

  24. rhombopteryx says:


    nweaver might be more correct than you think. NiMH batteries are a lot more environmentally unsound than you seem to suggest, in some cases not much better than NiCd. Some of the ‘metals’ that make up the “M” in NiMH are almost as unhealthy to humans as Cadmium. Excessive Manganese exposure, for example causes Manganism.
    That’s just the health side of it. As far as destructive environmental impacts, mining these hard-to-extract “rare earth” metals can have a greater impact than mining more commmon metals.
    It really is a case of pick your poison.