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



Report from India: Lead Battery Recycling the Right and Wrong Way

This report is from Conrad Meyer, chair of Blacksmith’s board of directors, who is currently in India with Blacksmith.

Last week, we traveled to India to meet with the senior management of Gravita, an environmentally friendly recycler of used lead acid batteries (ULABs). The visit also included a tour of the company’s Jaipur facility. Gravita and Blacksmith are working together to help encourage responsible recycling of ULABs in India and elsewhere.

Worldwide, ULAB recycling takes place two ways – in facilities with proper precautions, and informally in backyards.  Can you guess which approach is more extensive?

Here is a look at the two faces of the ULAB recycling industry.

Below we see Sarita Gupta, Blacksmith’s India director, and Promila Sharma, Blacksmith’s program coordinator for South and Southeast Asia,  don protective clothing for our visit to Gravita.

Used batteries are fed up a conveyor belt into a separator machine that crushes them and separates the plastic casing from the lead plates.

A pile of scrap lead from batteries processed in the separator, ready to be fed into the smelter.

These lead smelters are used to process the lead extracted from used batteries. The smelters are equipped with extensive air handling systems to ensure toxic lead dust is filtered out.

Facilities like Gravita are one of the “good guys.”  During our visit, we hosted a workshop with Gravita for ULAB recycling industry participants to promote responsible recycling methods.  Unfortunately, about 50% of the ULAB recycling in India looks more like this.

This young man in the photo above is sitting in the middle of a pile of ULABs, breaking them by hand. As you can see, he is not wearing any protective gear.  He breathes in the toxic lead dust released from the broken batteries, and he also brings the poison home on his clothing, and in his hair.

Many of these informal mom-and-pop ULAB recycling operations smelt lead in backyards and even kitchens with children nearby.

The recycling of ULABs takes place in every city in the developing world.  While some recycling takes place responsibly in controlled facilities,  more often they are carried out in family-run backyard operations, with little or no precautions. This is one of the world’s worst pollution problems.

Related: Blacksmith Institute, WWF India and Ananta Aspen Centre in India hosts session on “Toxic Pollution in India: The Unseen Public Health Menace”

India’s Amazing Pollution Story

Our latest post appeared in the Indiaspora blog, reproduced below. Join us on May 7, 2013 for Blacksmith’s Benefit for India.

An Undesirable Export

Recently, the nonprofit I work with received a letter from a man who said he was writing to us as a “last resort.” He was asking for help dealing with toxic pollution in his neighborhood in India, half a world away from our offices in New York. This exchange reflects what pollution is – a problem with no boundaries.

On May 7, Blacksmith Institute will host its first ever Benefit for India to raise awareness and support for pollution cleanup work in India. The event, to be held in New York, will serve as a rallying point for the Indian American community (and their friends) to direct help back to India. Why? Because pollution in India is not just an Indian problem. Pollution is a global issue with worldwide ramifications. While pollution affects those living or working near the source of contamination the most, it also travels, affects the global economy, and accelerates the deterioration of the environment for everyone. This is why pollution in India should be our concern as well.

According to the World Bank, by 2020, India’s water, air, soil and forest resources will be under more human pressure than those of any other country. With over a billion industrious people all striving to make a living, India must find a way to sustain its economic growth without exposing its residents to the deadly health impacts from pollution.

Children are especially at risk. Young developing minds and bodies can be devastated by prolonged exposure even to low doses of pollution, resulting in I.Q. losses and a battery of other lifelong ailments. About 1,000 Indian children reportedly die of pollution-related illnesses every day. At the current rate, India could lose a whole generation, and part of its future, to pollution.

But there is good news.

“The India story is truly amazing,” says Karti Sandilya, the guest of honor at the Blacksmith Benefit for India. “Within the next few years, ten of India’s worst polluted sites should be dealt with.”

“These are large sites that Blacksmith assessed, compiled in an inventory, and shared with the Indian government. The government has set up a fund to clean the ten worst sites” explained Sandilya, the former US Resident Director of the Asian Development Bank and a Blacksmith advisor.

“But there are still many small polluted sites in India and that’s where India Americans can help,” says Sandilya. “If they can channel resources and support to India through Blacksmith, we can start tackling the thousands of small sites scattered all throughout the country.”

Small sites perhaps like the one described by our letter-writer. He believes a battery manufacturer situated in the middle of his densely populated neighborhood is responsible for the daily pollution. He writes about obnoxious smells spewing from the factory’s chimney, and he says his family, including a ten-month old baby, has difficulty breathing. To make things worse, he fears the factory is expanding and he feels that there is nothing he can do about it.

“Does the law permit this kind of polluting?” he asks.

Well, the answer is no. Under India’s Environment Protection Act of 1986 and other regulations, the storing and manufacturing of hazardous chemicals is not permitted inside a densely populated area. But due to weak enforcement of regulations, we believe that what our letter-writer is experiencing is not unusual.

Factories in India often pollute with little consequences, while many small, informal mom-and-pop operations, which are responsible for much of the pollution, fly under the radar. These small operators have little incentive or resources to clean up their act.

For example, many Indian families recycle lead-acid batteries, the kind found in every car or truck, for a living. They break the batteries by hand in their yard, and smelt the toxic lead they collect in their kitchens. Even if they understand that their families are being poisoned, few will or can stop the practice because it is their livelihood. And that problem is getting worse.

“People who have bicycles now have scooters, and those who have scooters now have cars. So there are lot of batteries all over country,” says Sandilya. “Every town has underground battery operations. Only half of all batteries in India are recovered and recycled by the battery manufacturers with some kind of controls. 50% is done by backyard operators.”

The other big problem is tannery waste. Many Indians, including children, work with toxic chemicals in tanneries with few safeguards because for them, making a living, even in the most poisonous surroundings, is better than not making a living at all.

And so, toxic pollutants have permeated the Indian landscape, especially the waterways, where untreated industrial waste is often dumped. Add to this the estimated 32,000 million liters of untreated sewage that flows into the country’s rivers every day, and you have a “ticking health bomb.”

The Indian pollution story is not that different from what is happening in China, and what has happened in the U.S. and in Europe. Industrialization brings pollution but it is a problem that can be solved using lessons we have learnt globally.

For example, Blacksmith is working to get pollution scrubbers used by manufacturing plants around the world installed in factories in India to stem the flow of toxic waste. In Muthia, Blacksmith used worms to “eat” up toxic heavy metals from some 2,750 tons of industrial waste dumped in this village in Gujarat. Vermiculture is a low-cost technique that can be easily replicated at toxic hotspots around the world. In Kanpur, Blacksmith introduced elements into the groundwater to trigger a reaction with the toxic hexavalent chromium pollutant, causing it to bind to rocks and preventing it from contaminating water. This is a technique that has been used successfully in various countries for years.

So May 7 join us in New York to help fight pollution in India. All of our lives are intertwined across borders through economies, culture, families, and friends. This is what the letter-writer in India understands. He is not alone. We can all help by sharing and supporting solutions and ideas. In India, change has already begun with the upcoming cleanup of the ten large polluted hotspots. Now help us tackle the rest. More information about the event can be found at www.blacksmithbenefit.org.

Blacksmith’s Pollution Tipping Point with Karti Sandilya

Karti Sandilya, Blacksmith Institute

Karti Sandilya, Advisor, Blacksmith Institute

In Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book The Tipping Point, he describes how little things can make a big difference, and he points to “connectors” – people who provide links to others – as a crucial element for bringing something to a head. In Blacksmith’s case, that connector seems to be Karti Sandilya.  Over the last ten years, with his help, Blacksmith has brought the issue of pollution to a boiling point.  Governments and funders are now starting to pay attention.

An expert in development policy and strategy, and a former country director for the Asian Development Bank, Karti’s connections in governments and international institutions are extraordinary.  Through his efforts we have opened doors to the World Bank, the European Commission and governments all over the world to help in our efforts to eradicate toxic pollution in poor countries.

I recently got back from a trip with him to Tokyo, Honk Kong, Beijing, Manila, Sydney, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo seeking support for the World Bank’s Global Alliance for Legacy Pollution and Health initiative. Despite the grueling schedule of travel and back-to-back meetings, it was a delight to be around Karti and watch him work. He is one of the kindest and happiest men I have ever met, and his ability to make connections between people and projects has been invaluable.

I am writing about him today to reiterate Malcolm Gladwell’s point.  That small things do make a big difference. That one person, can have a big impact.  Not everyone can be Karti Sandilya,  but working together, we can all make things happen. Thanks Karti.

Related:  Karti talks about the changing global attitude towards the pollution problem and his work with Blacksmith

A Solution To India’s Pollution Nightmare

I recently came across the article India’s Pollution Nightmare:  Can it be Tackled?, in which the author, Govindasamy Agoramoorthy, talks about three big perils plaguing India – polluting tanneries, lead contamination from informal battery recycling, and riverside industries that dump toxic waste into the India’s waters. He closes his argument with a paragraph on what must be done in order for India to “escape its enduring environmental nightmare.”

Well, Mr. Agoramoorthy, I am glad to say that some the solutions you point out in your piece are already taking place. I know because we are involved. Blacksmith Institute has been cleaning up toxic sites in India for a decade now, working in partnership with the government and local communities.  In fact, the example you mentioned in Gujarat State – where worms were used to eat up the toxins in soil – was a Blacksmith project that we are indeed working to replicate.

This year, our work plan for India includes identifying polluted communities, starting more remediation, and raising funds – three things you mentioned.  In Tamil Nadu, working with the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, we plan to assess more lead battery recycling sites, work with the industry to improve recycling practices, and develop projects to address lead contamination. In Hyderabad we are presenting a workshop on remediation methods.

In the bigger picture, we are also assisting the government at the state and national levels to develop and implement a sustainable structure to deal with ongoing toxic pollution. And we are working on identifying and adding more information about toxic sites in India to our global database of polluted sites. This inventory will guide us in our cleanup.

So to answer your question, yes we think India’s “pollution nightmare” can be tackled. India is a big country. It will take time and we have to set priorities.  So we are concentrating our efforts first on the worst polluted sites where people are most at risk.  Then site by toxic site, we will begin to erase pollution from India’s memory.

An 8 Million Ton Problem

Dr. B. Sengupta recently sat down with Sarita Gupta to talk about India’s growing toxic waste problem – by his count, India generates over 8 million tons of toxic waste every year but only has the capacity to deal with half of that amount.

He should know. For 30 years, Dr. Sengupta worked at the Indian government’s Central Pollution Control Board.  Now, as Blacksmith’s technical advisor in India, Dr. Sengupta is helping us with our pollution cleanup efforts in the country.

I am reproducing Sarita’s post below.  Sarita met Dr. Sengupta while in India doing research on nonprofits.  Sarita is a Blacksmith consultant and supporter.  Thanks, Sarita.

Tackling India’s Growing Toxic Waste

Ever wonder what happened to that old computer you junked or that dead car battery? Chances are they were transported thousands of miles to a developing country where poor people make a living from extracting lead and other metals from discarded items. Recycling e-waste might be economically productive but exacts a huge environmental and health toll when toxins and heavy metals are dumped improperly, often right in the same communities as the workers. The result is millions plagued with disease, disability and death.

I recently became involved with the Blacksmith Institute, a nonprofit that is removing poisons from contaminated playgrounds, schools, homes and factories as well as large river systems and entire communities in the developing world. Blacksmith focuses on pollution that is acute and geographically confined as opposed to say, carbon emissions. The effects of this type of pollution are generally immediately felt and related to identifiable causes like pesticide runoff. They can usually be addressed at local or national levels.

During a trip to India last month, I met with Blacksmith’s national technical advisor, Dr. B. Sengupta. India has hundreds of thousands of poor people engaged in recycling e-waste and lead batteries. Add to that the numbers engaged in dyeing fabric or tanning leather or working in small smelters. In the US strict government regulation and monitoring would prevent a business from dumping toxins improperly. But in India, said Dr. Sengupta, anti-pollution laws exist mainly on paper. Instead of a few mega corporations as found here, India has over five million small and mid-sized industries, making monitoring virtually impossible.

According to Dr. Sengupta, India produces over eight million tons of toxic waste every year. The Indian government in the last 25 years has built 28 facilities for the proper transport, storage and disposal of toxic waste. These facilities however have the capacity to only handle one-half of the total.

The result is a four million ton problem that only promises to get worse with industrialization and population growth.

The Indian government to its credit is trying to address the problem. The Ministry of Environment & Forests has been allocated a significant amount in the current Indian budget to remediate polluted sites and the World Bank has stepped in with additional monies. Along with resources, there is strong expertise in India regarding pollution. However no complex remediation projects have yet been implemented and there is a dearth of state-of-the-art technical expertise and trained personnel to do so.

Enter Blacksmith Institute. The organization brings the best scientific practices from around the world and the latest and most cost-effective technologies to each project. It has a roster of senior experts with environmental health and engineering experience to address specific toxins and develop the appropriate remediation plan. The Ministry has invited Blacksmith to assist in site identification and the development of detailed remediation plans. It is a case of what I call ‘optimal collaboration’ between developed world expertise advancing the agenda of a developing government committed to resolving its own problems.

Dr. Sengupta, who retired after 30 years of executive positions at the Central Pollution Control Board (akin to our EPA), is optimistic about India’s future. The good news here, he says, is that toxic pollution can be cleaned up and stopped through regulation, community education and proven alternative and modern technologies. He is willing to battle killer heat, indifferent bureaucrats and strenuous travel to continue his lifelong quest of making India’s environment safer and healthier. Just don’t get him started on India’s sewage problem.

Pink Crocodiles and the New Front Against Pollution in India

Jairam Ramesh, Richard Fuller, speaking in India

Jairam Ramesh, Richard Fuller, speaking in India

I just returned from India last week, where I heard about crocodiles that have reportedly turned pink, and whose tongues have gone white because of dyes polluting the rivers.  I also heard about workers making bangles who contract cancer after just two years on the job.

These stories are not entirely new to me as Blacksmith has been working on pollution cleanup in India for quite some time now.  In fact, in Noraiakheda, we also encountered people with hands probably as pink as the crocodiles. But the big difference I am sensing now is that support for pollution cleanup is the strongest it has ever been in India.

I was in India to speak at a conference, along with Jairam Ramesh, the Indian Minister for the Environment and Forests, who laid out his vision for a pollution-free India. The Minister has decided to make cleanup a priority in his country and we are excited at the prospect of being India’s strategic partner in this area.

In the audience were industry leaders, environmentalists and policy makers – all eager to launch a new front against pollution – together! The Minister also announced the pending formation of a National Green Tribunal and the India National Environment Protection Authority, similar to the EPA in the U.S.

Good things are happening in India.

Off to India to Speak about Pollution and Economic Development

I am heading off to India, today, where I will be the keynote speaker at a gathering about toxic pollution, cleanup and economic development.  I believe this session will spark increasing cleanup efforts in India because of the presenting parties involved — the Aspen Institute India, the Confederation of Indian Industry and the World Wildlife Fund.  This shows that government officials, industry leaders and NGOs are now interested in working together to solve this problem and that is key to getting things done.

While I will talk about why toxic pollution cleanup is important, the Indian Minister of State for Environments and Forests will outline the government’s initiatives for dealing with the issue.  On a global scale, toxic cleanup gets very little attention.  India, which harbors several polluted hotspots, is beginning to realize that cleanup is key to continued economic development — good for business, good for people.  After years of working in India, we have built up a lot of support for pollution cleanup.  Interest in the issue is now the strongest it has ever been.

“The Invisible Pollution That’s Poisoning People Silently” will take place in New Delhi this Friday, March. 12.