Fact Sheet: What is the #1 Childhood Environmental Health Threat Globally?


“Lead Poisoning from improper automotive battery recycling activities is the number one childhood environmental health threat globally”.

—  Dr. Jack Caravanos, CUNY professor and research lead at Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth

While lead pollution can result from a number of activities, the improper recycling of used lead-acid batteries (ULABs) is the leading source. Lead exposure is estimated to account for 143, 000 deaths per year, or 0.6% of the global burden of disease, with the highest burden in developing regions. Children are most at risk. Read the story of Seynabou Mbengue and the five children she lost

Here are some FACTS ABOUT LEAD:

  • There is no known safe level of lead exposure.
  • The CDC has adopted 5 µg/dL (micrograms /deciliter) as the point at which to trigger public health actions.
  • In the U.S., about 500,000 U.S. children are estimated to have a blood lead level of at least 5 µg/dL.  Average blood lead level in the U.S. is 1.8 µg/dL. In some of the world’s worst polluted places, we have found levels as high as 234 µg/dL in children.
  • Lead exposure is entirely preventable.


  • Childhood lead exposure is estimated to contribute to 600,000 new cases globally of children with intellectual disabilities every year.
  • Lead exposure is estimated to account for 143, 000 deaths per year, or 0.6% of the global burden of disease, with the highest burden in developing regions.
  • In a review of 242 studies of known chemically contaminated sites, lead was the primary contaminant in 57 (25%) studies, representing 8,345 exposed children.

Health Effects:

  • Lead is a potent neurotoxin, causing lower intellectual capacity, neurological damage, and cardiovascular disease, amongst other problems.
  • Children are the most vulnerable. Lead can affect nearly every system in a young developing body, in particular the brain and nervous system, with devastating and sometimes permanent health consequences.
  • The presence of lead in children lowers I.Q. by an estimated 4-7 points for each increase of 10 μg/dL.
  • In adults, lead poisoning can lead to increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. In pregnant women, lead poisoning can cause miscarriage and stillbirths.
  • Lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms as lead accumulates in the body over time.  Lead poisoning therefore frequently goes unrecognized.


  • The improper recycling of used lead-acid batteries is arguably the #1 childhood environmental health threat globally.
  • Of the six million tons of lead that are used annually, approximately three quarters go into the production of lead-acid batteries. Of these batteries, 97% are eventually recycled to retrieve the lead.
  • The improper recycling of ULABs happens in every city in the developing world.  These are small mom-and-pop operations. Batteries are often broken up by hand, often in backyards, and smelted in kitchens.
  • Lead pollution can also be a result of mining, smelting, manufacturing and other activities, including the continued use of leaded paint and leaded gasoline in some countries.

Examples of the Lead Problem:

  • In Nigeria, the high price of gold prompted a mini gold rush in 2010, and villagers took to mining the lead-rich ore. This resulted in the world’s worst outbreak of lead poisoning.  Over  400 children were killed.  Lead levels as high as 150µg/dL were recorded. (see Photos)

Sources/Learn More:

Want lead-free food? Visit the first “Barro Aprobado” restaurant in Mexico

The media turned out in force to help us  launch "Barro Aprobado" and spread awareness about lead-free pottery.

The media turned out in force to help us launch “Barro Aprobado” and spread awareness about lead-free pottery in Mexico.

Across Mexico every day, millions of meals served in homes and restaurants come with an extra, unseen ingredient — toxic lead.

Want lead-free food?

The Casa de Campo restaurant, housed in a 260 year-old building in Cuernavaca’s historic downtown in Morelos state, is the first restaurant to go lead-free under the “Barro Aprobado” program launched by Pure Earth/Blacksmith Institute and partners.

This means that the restaurant is only using traditional Mexican pottery that has been certified lead-free to cook and serve food.

The "Barro Aprobado" campaign launched on the beautiful grounds of the Casa de Campo, the first restaurant certified lead-free under the program.

The “Barro Aprobado” campaign launched in Morelos state, on the beautiful, historic grounds of the Casa de Campo, the first restaurant certified lead-free under the program.












“We are very excited that the food prepared in this building will be lead-free, quite probably for the first time in over two centuries,” says Daniel Estrada, who oversees the “Barro Aprobado” lead-free pottery project for Pure Earth/Blacksmith in Mexico.

Most traditional pottery used in homes and restaurants across the country are produced by local artisans using toxic lead glazes. Of the estimated 10,000 to 50,000 pottery workshops across the country, only about 100 are lead free.

A display of "Barro Aprobado" lead-free pottery on the grounds of the Casa de Campo restaurant.

A display of “Barro Aprobado” lead-free pottery at the Casa de Campo restaurant. Now, the food prepared in this building will be lead-free, quite possibly for the first time in over two centuries.

Because of the widespread use of leaded pottery, over 70% of the population of Mexico—an estimated 80 million Mexican men, women, and children—have blood lead levels above the WHO standard of 5 ug/dl.

  • The average blood lead level in Mexico City, where traditional pottery is used less often, is 8 ug/dl.
  • Elsewhere across Mexico, the average blood lead level is about 10 ug/dl.
  • Among lead-glaze based pottery artisans, the average blood lead level is 26 ug/dl and can reach as high as 65.
Delicious food served on lead-free pottery.

Delicious food served on lead-free pottery.












The “Barro Aprobado” program is working with local potters to get them to switch to a cheaper, lead-free glaze. At the same time, the program is introducing these lead-free potters to restaurant owners to show that there is a demand for lead-free pottery.

“We are hoping that these relationships will lead to more restaurants replacing their leaded pottery with lead-free ones that are produced by local traditional potters they know and trust,” says Daniel.



The “Barro Aprobado” program is also giving out free lead test kits to about 100 stores so that customers can be guaranteed that what they buy is truly lead-free.







Fact Sheet: Mexico’s 500-year-old problem (Infographic)

Mexico 11

Over 70% of the population of Mexico—an estimated 80 million Mexican men, women, and children—have blood lead levels above the WHO standard.

The lead poisoning comes from their use of traditional Mexican pottery—the colorful plates, pots and other wares that you see in almost every home and restaurant in the country. Traditional Mexican pottery has been produced by local artisans over the past five centuries using leaded glazes, which were introduced by the Spaniards.

It is a national problem rooted in a 500-year-old tradition that has, so far, been hard to break.

Pure Earth/Blacksmith is currently in Mexico carrying out a major campaign (“Barro Aprobado“) to raise public awareness about the dangers of leaded pottery, and to promote the use and production of lead-free pottery.  The project is focused on Morelos state with plans to expand on its success nationwide.


  • Population of Mexico: 112 million
  • Population of Mexico with blood lead levels above WHO standard: 80 million (this includes artisans working with leaded glazes, communities living near leaded workshops, as well as the general public who use leaded traditional pottery at home and in restaurants)
  • Number of traditional leaded pottery workshops: an estimated 10,000 to 50,0000
  • Number of people working in these traditional workshops: an estimated 50,000 to 250,000, including children.
  • WHO blood lead level standard: 5 ug/dl
  • Average blood levels in the U.S.: 1.8 ug/dl
  • Average blood lead levels in Mexico City: about 8 ug/dl (traditional pottery is used less often in the wealthier city)
  • Average blood lead levels in Mexico: about 10 ug/dl
  • Average blood lead levels for children and their families who work in or live near traditional pottery workshops: 26 to 40 ug/dl
  • Amount of traditional pottery produced each month: 3,500 tons
  • Amount of lead oxide used in pottery each month: 350 tons
  • Amount of lead oxide in traditional leaded glaze (Greta): 85%
  • Number of lead-free pottery workshops: 100 (as of 2013)


Lead is a potent neurotoxin, causing lower intellectual capacity, neurological damage, and cardiovascular disease, amongst other problems.

Calculations show that the impact of lead poisoning in Mexico could be greater than any other environmental factor, including water sanitation and hygiene, diarrhea, respiratory infections, and injuries.


Lead-free glazes. In recent years, a lead-free glaze has been developed that works in existing kilns producing the same quality pottery. It is also half the cost of leaded glaze.


Breaking tradition and a lack of awareness. Artisans are reluctant to switch to the lead-free glaze partly because of tradition, and partly because of a lack of understanding about the problem and risks of leaded glazes. For consumers, there is no way to tell if the pottery they are using or buying is lead-free unless they do a lead test. There is no certification system for lead-free pottery or any labeling.  Currently, most traditional pottery produced and sold is made with leaded glaze.

Infographic 1












Infographic 2




The Story of A Mother and the Five Children She Lost

Senegal women

*Click here to read the story of Seynabou M.

Seynabou M. is a member of the poisoned poor.

The poisoned poor live and work in some of the world’s worst polluted places.

Often they are not aware that their community is polluted, even if it is the result of their toxic jobs. Many do not understand why their children are dying.

Pollution is the largest cause of death in the developing world.

94% of the burden of disease from pollution falls on the poor in low- and middle-income countries that are least equipped to deal with the problem.

  • Pollution causes 10 million deaths a year
  • kills more people than cancer globally
  • and causes three times more deaths than HIV, malaria and tuberculosis.

This is just one story out of millions. This is the story of a mother and the five children she lost.





A Shower of Toxic Lead and the Mystery of Nine Dead Cows

This is the second post from Sarita Gupta, Blacksmith’s India director, from her recent trip visiting lead smelters in India.

I work for Blacksmith Institute, which cleans up toxic pollution around the world. I never imagined sitting in my New York office that an occupational hazard would be to get showered in lead dust.

I was on a visit to three lead smelters in India, accompanying a Blacksmith expert who is helping them to assess how environmentally sound they are, and what they can do to create safer conditions for their workers as well as the surrounding communities. Our lead shower took place at smelter No. 2.

My first instinct was to flee but then I glanced at Brian Wilson, who has worked around lead for 33 years and is militant about protecting himself and anyone with him. Brian looked completely calm and did not take even a step to get out of the way of the dust shower. That was because we were all wearing masks to prevent inhalation of this toxin.

Smelter workers in general were not as well protected. We saw many in sandals whereas Brian made sure the smelter managers gave us sturdy boots to wear around the plant. There apparently aren’t many women visitors (or workers) at one plant, and they gave me the smallest shoe size in men’s, which I held up by tying the laces around my ankles. The worker who was moving ingots of finished lead from the belt and stacking them by hand a few feet away fascinated me. I imagined the 25 kg weight falling on his bare toes and finishing off his work life. Others had their mandatorily-provided face masks dangling from their necks. The masks were itchy and it was hard to breathe in the heat of the Indian summer, so it was easy to think one was immune.

Till it showered lead.

India battery recycling plant

Workers separating lead grids and paste

The shower was due to Brian asking to check the functioning of a bag house.  The worker turned the switch to BLOW instead of SUCTION. Which raised the question of training and education. Unfortunately, for a smelter owner, the training should not end with his/her plant workers.

The villagers around one plant were up in arms because nine cows had died from lead poisoning. The smelter checked the levels of its fugitive emissions from its furnace: negligible. After much investigation it was surmised that the lorries bringing used car batteries to the smelter would, after unloading, go to a pond down the road and wash out their cabs. The cows drank from that pond and got poisoned. How much the truck drivers knew about the risks of their cargo to themselves and other humans is an open question.

Indian plant ingots

The finished product: long silvery bars, coming out of molds in front of furnace. The bars are silvery and beautiful, making me want to touch them. I could see why lead has been used in cosmetics since the Romans.

While the U.S. and Europe have become wise to the dangers of lead, emerging markets have yet to wake up. All three smelters are trying to do their best to protect their workers and communities even if the standards are not what we might expect. The bigger issue in India is the number of illegal operators who break apart lead acid batteries in their back yards, dumping sulfuric acid and vast quantities of lead into the soil and air. By doing so they are compromising not just their health but condemning their children to irreparable brain and neurological damage.

The lead dust settled on our clothes and hair. On the way back to the hotel, Brian handed each of us a plastic bag and instructed us to shed the clothing immediately upon entering our rooms, seal it in the bag and keep it separate from all our other stuff until it could be washed.

If only someone was taking such care of the workers we met on this trip.

What I Wore in Jaipur… and Why it Matters


Sarita Gupta, Blacksmith’s India director, contributes this post from India.




The fabled land of Rajasthan is known, among other things, for its vividly colored clothing. So when the opportunity came to travel for work to Jaipur, I could see myself swathed in layers of gossamer cotton in eye-popping blues, magentas, reds.




Instead, here is what we wore.  


That’s because we are visiting a lead processing and recycling factory on the outskirts of Jaipur.

Without lead, things requiring batteries, including our cars, trucks and generators, would not run. But as I have learned from my work with the Blacksmith Institute, lead is also one of the most toxic elements on earth. The only way to live with lead is to make sure it is handled in an environmentally sound manner, from ore to manufacturing to storage, disposal and recycling.



Good Guys vs. Bad Guys

Blacksmith in India is trying to reduce the risk of lead contamination by working with the industry, which has good guys who follow the rules, and bad guys who don’t mind smelting a few batteries in their backyard furnace and dumping acid, lead residue and other nasty stuff right into the ground.

The trouble is, the proportion of good vs. bad guys in India is about 50-50, which results in millions of people with compromised health.

Brian Wilson, program manager at the International Lead Management Centre, accompanied us on the visit to the factory owned by Gravita, one of the good guys.

Brian has worked around lead for 33 years and takes personal protection very seriously. Here’s the email he sent the rest of us just before the trip:

“When visiting the plant, please wear flat sturdy shoes and jeans or slacks that completely cover your legs – and a long sleeve cotton or synthetic top, but not a sweater”.

We get in the Toyota minivan for the 40 km ride to the factory. Brian looks down at my shoes—flat, sturdy, just as requested.

“We really should stop in the market and get you proper shoes,” he frowns.

I look at him quizzically. My shoes were made of breathable fabric and had air holes, which would let in lead dust.

“As soon as you get back, wash not just your feet but the shoes too.”


Sweater and Hair: Toxic Lead Traps

Gravita is ready for us with helmets, masks, gloves and newly-bought just-for-us rubber boots and plastic overcoats.

We troop onto the factory floor. The place is spanking clean, which makes it hard to believe that nasty things are lurking in the air and on surfaces to hurt us badly.

The boots don’t fit right, the plastic feels clammy and I fight the urge to tear off the mask. I wonder how the workers manage all day long and especially in the searing hot summer days. (Their only concession is that instead of plastic they wear cotton uniforms which they must remove at the end of their shift). Again, this is in a place that is looking out for their welfare. Thousands toil in dangerous conditions with no or limited personal protective equipment.

Meanwhile Brian has spotted a worker with a sweater on (February mornings are chilly in the desert air) and marches him outside to remove it. Why? Because lead dust gets trapped in wool and the worker will wear the sweater home, thereby risking that his family will come into contact with the toxin as well.

We finish the tour by walking through a shallow pan of water and then scraping our boots on a perforated mat. It is a relief to take off my new Rajasthani wear. But Brian is not finished with me yet.

“Sarita, you must take a long shower and make sure you wash your hair too.”

My hair? I had just had it cut and blow dried before leaving for India and wasn’t planning on washing it for a couple more days. But enough of it peeked out from under the helmet to become a dust catcher and get Brian concerned. I have half a mind to ignore him. But then I think of the effects of lead poisoning–abdominal pain, tiredness, decreased sleep and appetite, and this just for starters–and get myself to the shower.



Related:  Report from India – lead Battery Recycling the Right and Wrong Way



Training Women in Senegal


Next month, Blacksmith returns to Senegal to provide livelihood training to women so that they will not have to go back to the dangerous job of backyard battery recycling–the activity that triggered the tragic lead poisoning outbreak in 2008 that killed 32 children in Thiaroye Sur Mer.

“Women should not have to choose between earning a living wage and the safety of their children,” says Kira Traore, Blacksmith’s program director for Africa. “By teaching them alternative income-generating activities, we are providing them with a long-term solution, and ensuring that they will not return to illegal battery recycling.”

Over 100 women will attend two training sessions held at the local youth center.

The first training session will focus on how to fortify grains to increase nutrition and crop yield. The women will be trained on mill processing techniques, and will have access to two mills that will be maintained by the local women’s association.

At the second training, the women will be introduced to hydroponics so they can grow crops without soil, using a hydroponics table filled with mineral nutrient solutions.  Because the water used stays within the system, this method reduces the amount of water needed, which is essential during the dry season. Hydroponics will allow the women to grow crops year round without being dependent on soil quality or weather.

These techniques will not only help the women feed their family, but also produce extra food for sale, providing them with a sustainable source of income.

Following the lead poisoning tragedy, Blacksmith conducted house-to-house cleanup (see photos) and taught villagers about the dangers of lead. Over 100 hones were cleaned, and  3000 cubic meters of contaminated soil was carted away.  Today, lead levels in the soil of the affected villages are below the U.S. standard of 400 ppm, down from 200,000 ppm measured at the height of the outbreak.

For many men and women around the world, recycling old car batteries by hand to extract lead is the one of the few ways of making a living. They recycle the batteries at home, breaking them in their backyards, smelting lead in their kitchens.

Read the rest of the Sept/Oct newsletter

Background: Cleanup in Senegal

In March 2008, Blacksmith Institute was contacted by the Senegal Ministry of Environment following the sudden deaths of 32 children under age five in the community of Ngagne Diaw, Thiayore-Sur-Mer, located on the southern end of the Cape Vert Peninsula in Dakar. The children all died from acute lead poisoning due to constant exposure to lead dust in the air, soil and water. The source of lead was quickly determined to be the informal recycling of used lead-acid batteries (ULAB).

Recycling lead this way was a popular way for women to supplement domestic income.  Lead was used and sold as weights to hold down fishing nets. The women would break open the batteries by hand in their backyards, and melt the lead in pots and pans in their kitchens, often with children playing nearby. Lead dust covered almost everything in their homes and community, poisoning everyone.

But children begin to die after a ‘lead-rush’ increased the exposure to children at exponential rates. A newly opened lead smelter offered $100 per day for women and children to collect and sift through lead waste. In just one hour, the women were able to earn the same daily wages as someone who worked all day in the market.

Blacksmith worked to address the emergency with a three-phase remediation strategy. The project had two distinct goals: in the short-term, to completely remove the threat of lead from Ngagne Diaw; and in the long-term, to ensure the responsible collection and recycling of used lead-acid batteries so that lead from this source is no longer a threat in Senegal. These three phases of the project were successfully completed in February 2013.

Why Are Millions of Children in Mexico Still Suffering From Lead Poisoning?

Mexico Photos 154

In 1991, the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico was found to have high lead levels in her blood. It launched an outcry on both sides of the border against the use of toxic lead glazes in Mexican pottery, a tradition dating back hundreds of years.

But while the flow of lead-glazed pottery into the U.S. has dramatically slowed because of an import ban, toxic wares continue to be produced and used by many families in Mexico even though there are laws preventing the use of lead glazes.

A report in the Huffington Post looks at why lead persists in Mexico, and offers a quick overview of the history of the problem, leading up to Blacksmith’s renewed effort next year to launch a major education campaign starting with potters, pottery sellers and consumers in one state.

Among the goals, the campaign will encourage potters to switch to a cheaper, lead-free alternative glaze developed by scientists at Mexican universities with support from Blacksmith and a local NGO.

Read the rest of the Sept/Oct newsletter

Guide To Lead Cleanup Now Available; First in Series of Global Remediation Guides

The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) has released a technical guide focused on the containment of lead, one of the world’s worst pollutants. It is the first in a planned series of guides on best practices in global remediation.

Produced by GAHP’s Technical Advisory Group, which consists of experts in the field, including Blacksmith Technical Advisory Board, the guides provide a valuable framework to help those implementing cleanup projects in countries where relevant regulations and institutional controls are still being established and where there is limited practical expertise in remediation.

“These guides help to pass the experience gained in industrialized countries on remediation projects over several decades to those who are just beginning new programs. By sharing these resources, the GAHP hopes to make remediation easier and encourage more cleanup worldwide,” says David Hanrahan, Blacksmith’s Principal Technical Advisor and Convenor of the TAG at the GAHP.

The lead guide, for example, sets out the criteria for disposing of the toxic material in an engineered facility, based on approved approaches and practices internationally, which can be followed locally.

Read the rest of the Sept/Oct newsletter