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June 22, 2004

EU Parliament low on battery for hearing aids

Millions of hearing aid users in Europe are caught in the middle of a legislative tug-of-war between the EU Commission and the European Parliament.

The battle is about a new battery directive which may in effect ban all existing types of hearing aid batteries before any affordable new battery technology can be developed to replace them.

An update of the current battery directive regulating batteries sold in Europe has been on the drawing boards for some time. The EU Commission wants to make battery manufacturers and local authorities responsible for collecting and recycling used batteries. The European Parliament wants to go a lot further. It has tagged on no fewer than 87 amendments to the Commission proposal. Included is an amendment that would ban lead and other heavy metals. .

As written, the proposed ban would prohibit the only existing battery technology for hearing aids.

The European Parliament action on batteries containing certain amounts of lead was taken with a view to preventing environmental pollution by heavy metals from the disposal of batteries. But European Commission Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom maintained that the drastic Parliament action is wholly unnecessary. She said in a statement published by the Commission that the original Commission proposal for effective collection and recycling of the batteries would achieve the desired environmental result.

Some lead content in the small hearing aid "button" batteries is indispensable in order to prevent electrolyte leakage which would otherwise shorten battery life, damage the hearing aid, and potentially expose the user to a caustic solution. Efforts continue to be made by manufacturers to find alternative methods for preventing this co-called gassing, but no solution is on the horizon at this stage.

Insulin pumps for diabetics and thermometers for babies are among other small battery powered medical devices which are also at risk under the proposed directive.

As a next step in the procedure, the Council, under chairmanship of the Dutch Presidency, has taken up the issue. The next meeting of the Council Working Group is scheduled on 2 July.

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