LEAD POISONING AND CAR BATTERIES INITIATIVE
(formerly known as the Initiative for Responsible Battery Recycling)
THE CONTEXT – USED LEAD ACID BATTERIES ARE A GLOBAL POLLUTANT
Recycled lead is a valuable commodity for many people in the developing world, making the recovery of car batteries (known as used lead-acid batteries or ULAB) a viable and profitable business. However, in many developing countries and some in rapid transition, ULAB recycling and smelting operations are usually conducted in the open air, in densely populated urban areas, and often with few (if any) pollution controls. ULAB recycling occurs in every city in the developing world as part of a complicated cycle where batteries are sold by major firms internationally, recovered in small-scale local operations in many countries, and often recycled back to the large manufacturers. In many cases the local recycling operations are not managed in an environmentally sound manner and release lead contaminated compounds into the local environment in critical quantities.
As urban centers in the Global South become more populated, the confluence of increased car ownership and high unemployment rates has led to a pandemic of informal ULAB collection and melting operations. In many cases, informal battery melting is a subsistence activity – done in homes and commons – to reclaim and sell the secondary lead recovered. The unawareness of the dangers of lead combined with a lack of viable economic alternatives has led to the systemic poisoning of communities throughout the world.
THE PROBLEM – SMALL AMOUNTS OF LEAD CAN DAMAGE A CHILD FOR LIFE
World Health Organization limits are 10 µg/dl for lead in blood. According to most international standards, lead levels above 70 µg/dL in children are considered medical emergencies. Levels upwards of 100 µg/dl have already been documented in children living adjacent to ULAB smelting all over the world including Senegal, Dominican Republic and Philippines. At many ULAB collection centers and smelters, batteries are often broken open by hand, and the battery acid poured into the soil where it contaminates the groundwater and surrounding area. Weather-exposed broken batteries and casings along the smelting of the lead plates emit untold tons of lead dust into the air. This is particularly problematic in developing countries because these are most often community-based activities operating without proper safety precautions.
As a result of this process, children get exposed to lead in the following ways:
- Inhaling dust: During dry months, soil that contains lead becomes dust that can become airborne and travel long distances.
- Absorbing dust through skin or mouth: Soil easily generates dust that is ingested through normal childhood hand-to-mouth activity. In addition, barefoot children pick up dust-covered objects and bring them to their homes.
- Drinking contaminated water: In time, lead can migrate and contaminate subsurface and surface water supplies. Airborne dust can also migrate and enter water supplies.
- Eating contaminated food: Contaminated soil generates dust that accumulates on locally grown fruits and vegetables.
- Playing on slag: Children handling the abundant large and small “rocks” in the area can get lead oxide on their hands.
Although international trade regulations in conjunction with the Basel Secretariat can significantly stop future lead pollution from ULAB facilities, there remains an indispensable need to identify and deal with in-country informal operations as well as legacy pollution from past poor operations. The first priority is to protect the health of the children in adjacent communities through immediate treatment and education awareness. At the same time, legacy soils must be remediated to prevent further contamination to affected communities. Thirdly, a policy solution – tied to an economic solution, must be implemented to prevent future informal economies from surfacing.
Ending endemic exposure to lead from improper ULAB recycling requires a cross-sectoral, multi-faceted approach to:
Protect the health of the communities through education
This is the critical first step to any intervention, as it can be implemented almost immediately, while the political and environmental solutions are being developed. Specifically, education campaigns must be undertaken in communities adjacent to ULAB recycling operations to help mitigate exposure through everyday behavoir modification, diet and awareness. Treatment must also be given to all children with significantly high levels of lead in their blood.
Remediate legacy contaminated soils from ULAB recycling operations
Assistance must be given towards the remediation of lead contaminated soils that present human exposure hazards. Most often, lead contaminated soils can be capped and buried on site. More highly contaminated soils, however, must be characterized and moved to either local processing facilities where it can be smelted into an inert substance for proper disposal in a landfill or exported for treatment.
Establish policies for the environmentally sound management of ULAB to prevent future incidents in the formal sector
National policies must be developed for the environmentally sound management of ULAB recycling based on the Basel Technical Guidelines, developed by the Basel Secretariat in Geneva. Regulations must be focused on ensuring that private sector actors operate hygenic facilities for collecting, transporting, storing and recycling ULAB.
Provide alternative sources of income for informal sector operators
Due to the high price of lead, managing the informal sector through market-based incentives can end small-scale battery recycling while retaining livlihoods. With the help of public-private partnerships, community organizations can also pursue alternative forms of income generating activities – such as hygenically collecting batteries for resale, instead of breaking and melting them.
LEAD POISONING AND CAR BATTERIES PROJECT
The Lead Poisoning and Car Batteries Project (formerly known as the Initiative for Responsible Battery Recycling) is an active project of the Blacksmith Institute, which implements the general program outlined above. Currently on the ground in eight countries, the Lead Poisoning and Car Batteries Project hopes to expand operations worldwide.