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The tiny button-shaped batteries that have been powering hearing aids since the late 1970s have long been known to be harmful to the environment because of their mercury content. Now, they're illegal, as improving technology enables Illinois and several other states to ban them.

Mercury was removed from alkaline batteries in the mid-1990s, but the popular zinc-air button batteries in hearing aids were allowed to stay on the market because until recently manufacturers could not come up with a mercury-free alternative. An Illinois law signed a year ago took effect on Monday, and supporters say it could help reduce environmental contamination and the risk to public health from exposure to the toxin, which can cause organ damage.

"Mercury doesn't break down," explained Kevin Greene of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. "... If mercury gets into a water body, it can be converted into a more toxic form."

Mercury that builds up in the body can damage the brain, kidney and central nervous system.

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