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Senegal (Thiayore Sur Mer) – From Lead Battery Recycling to Hydroponics

the details…
Key pollutant
Informal recycling of used lead-acid car batteries
  • Soil
  • Direct contact
Population affected
Children Under 6 Affected
Lead smelting, Informal recycling of used lead-acid car batteries
Date started
March 2008
Date completed
February 2013
Cost of project
Project Partners
  • University of Dakar
  • World Health Organization
  • International Lead Management Center (ILMC)
  • Senegalese Ministry of Health


An episode of child deaths in this poor suburb of Dakar was traced to informal battery breaking and lead recycling in the middle of the community. Blacksmith was asked to work with other partners to characterize the source of the problem and to design and implement a practical solution. The solution adopted included removal and subsequent burial of highly contaminated materials from the working areas and cleaning of both public areas and private houses (where material had been stored). Blood lead levels in local children continue to fall.   Efforts continue with the Government of Senegal to introduce environmentally sound ULAB recycling and thereby prevent a recurrence of lead contamination in Dakar. This project in Senegal is a model of cooperation between local and international organizations for contamination issues associated with lead pollution.


Blacksmith was called to Senegal after the March 2008 deaths of 18 children under the age of five in the Dakar neighborhood of Thiaroye-Sur-Mer. The University Hospital believed that the children all died from acute lead poisoning due to constant exposure to lead dust in the air, soil and water. At the time, the main economic activity in the town was the informal recycling of used lead-acid car batteries, which involved the haphazard melting of car batteries to reclaim the scrap lead inside. Often done in open-air settings, the unregulated recycling exposed some 40,000 people to lead dust.

After the deaths in Senegal, the government worked quickly to shut down these battery-smelting operations. However, the legacy of many years of unregulated lead processing had rendered the entire community exceedingly polluted. In April 2008, the Ministry of Health in conjunction with the University of Dakar Toxicology division conducted blood tests among 41 children of Thiaroye-Sur-Mer – 100% of the children tested presented levels over 10 μg /dl, with the highest average being 158 μg /dl for the one-to-five year age group. According to most international standards, lead levels above 70 μg /dL in children are considered medical emergencies. A visit to the site by Blacksmith Institute staff at the same time revealed large amounts of lead dust present in homes, stores and streets throughout the community. Blacksmith Institute, the University of Dakar’s Toxicology department, and Senegalese Ministry of Health and the International Lead Management Center (ILMC) came together to address the problem.

Related: New York Times, 2009 –Lead poisoning kills children in Senegalese town

Pollution Blog – The Story of Seynabou Mbengue and the Five Children She Lost… Because of Her Job

Project Activity

The project brings together an international consortium of governmental and non-governmental agencies, each contributing its expertise. Blacksmith Institute’s Dakar-based staff is overseeing the coordination and implementation of the project. Partners include several Senegalese government agencies, the University of Dakar, the World Health Organization and the ILMC.

An educational program was undertaken in conjunction with local religious and village authorities to convey the dangers of exposure to lead dust. The World Health Organization (WHO) has committed to treating all children with significantly high levels of lead in their blood. To address the immediate environmental problem, Senegal’s Ministry of Environment is overseeing and implementing the remediation of soils and the decontamination of the Thiaroye-Sur-Mer site. In addition, the Ministry of Environment is working with the Geneva-based Secretariat of the Basel Convention on Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal to create and implement policy changes to regulate car battery processing from collection, transportation, storage and recycling.


Following the joint intervention by Blacksmith Institute, its local partners and ILMC, the contaminated area has now been cleaned up. Soil levels are now below 400 ppm (versus levels in excess of 400,000 ppm in some places.) While children between ages of 1 and 5 years old were presenting blood lead levels in excess of 150 μg /dl. in early 2008, the average blood lead level in that age group is now down to 53.457 μg /dl.

Since then the ILMC has continued to work with the Government of Senegal to introduce environmentally sound ULAB recycling and thereby prevent a recurrence of lead contamination in Dakar. The exercise in Senegal was a model of cooperation between local and international organizations for such contamination issues associated with lead pollution.

Due to a lack of total funding for the project in 2008/2009, the project was split into 2 phases, so that Blacksmith could deal with worst of the contamination as quickly as possible, due to the extreme health threat to the communities children. Phase 1 was focused on decreasing lead dust exposures as quickly and completely as possible. In Phase 1, the following objectives were accomplished:

  • 1100 cubic meters of Principal Threat Materials (PTM) were removed from homes and community areas, by local contractors, overseen by Blacksmith Institute Technical Advisory Board members
  • 42 homes were decontaminated using local crews of women hired and trained by Blacksmith Institute Technical Advisory Board members, and overseen by Ministry of Environment officials
  • Health monitoring and educational programs for safe management of ULAB, and mitigation of lead dust exposure were conducted by the Ministry of Health and the Poison Control Center.
  • Policy to establish the environmentally sound management of ULABs in Senegal is currently being workshopped by the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Trade.

Hydroponics as an alternative livelihood

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.

* Related:  The Story of Seynabou Mbengue and the Five Children She Lost… Because of Her Job