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:

CDC’s MMWR Features Our Findings on Lead in Kabwe’s Children

The latest issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), the main resource for key public health information and recommendations from the CDC, features field notes from our July trip to Kabwe, where we found devastating levels of lead poisoning in children.

kid in tub IMG_5293 copy

With a population of approximately 203,000, Kabwe is located in Zambia’s Copperbelt.

For nearly 100 years, lead mining and smelting operations contaminated the soil in the community.

Our Blacksmith/Pure Earth team, which included Dr. Jack Caravanos from the City University of New York School of Public Health, and Green Cross Switzerland, conducted extensive surface soil testing across 12 neighborhoods, and blood lead testing of 196 children aged two to eight years in six communities adjacent to the now-closed Kabwe mines and smelters.

Testing the playground for toxins.

Testing the playground for toxins.

We found that 26.5% of the children recorded blood lead levels higher than 65.0 µg/dL. The reference level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated is 5 µg/dL. The CDC recommends that lead chelation therapy be considered when a child has a blood lead level ≥45 µg /dL.

Read the full article in MMWR.


Kabwe’s Children’s Silent Struggles

This guest post is from Ben Barber, who visited Kabwe with the Blacksmith for a Pure Earth team in July.


We arrived last July in one of the world’s most toxic hotspots — Kabwe, a city of about 200,000 just two hours drive north of Zambia’s capita Lusaka.

We checked into the Elephant Head Hotel, most likely built during British rule when Zambia was known as Northern Rhodesia. At first, during a quick walk around the center of the city, it was hard to notice anything really out of the normal.

Shoppers wound their way through the markets and past sidewalk vendors of everything from newspapers to fruits and vegetables to cellphone cards. A friendly and active buzz of activity made me forget that the city contains a huge lead smelter and mine. They have been shut down for more than 10 years, but their legacy slowly became clear as we walked the sandy streets of the neighborhoods near the closed mine.

I went with a small team of three colleagues from the Blacksmith Institute, also known as Pure Earth, a New York-based non-profit that identifies and then helps clean up toxic waste sites in developing countries that contain lead, mercury, chromium, pesticides and other dangerous substances. We quickly made contact with local health and environment officials who arranged for us to test the blood of around 200 small children – to determine if the lead from the mine had been accumulating in the bodies of the most vulnerable residents.

The next morning we arrived at a tidy little cinderblock clinic. Dozens of anxious and friendly parents held their children close at hand, eager to get their blood tested for lead.

A Zambian health worker and a Blacksmith health expert pricked the tiny fingers. Some screaming ensued but tears dried up quickly when each kid got a piece of candy.  The team quickly drew blood samples into sterile containers. I was assigned the task of wiping away excess blood and applying band aids.

After two or three hours in the packed and noisy clinic we found we had to turn away the mothers with their children who continued to arrive seeking a blood test.

In the afternoon, we began using a hand-held x-ray machine that tested soil for lead as well as other toxic substances. Following a pattern monitored by continuous geo spatial readings we prepared a list of readings. The soil readings were off the charts – hundreds of time above what health officials in Zambia and the U.S. consider acceptable and safe.

A local teacher in Kabwe, Wisdom Kuanda, wrote in a letter to the Zambia Daily Mail July 23 that “Kabwe is indeed one of the 10 most polluted towns in the world.”

“As a teacher I have observed poor memory retention in most of the pupils who were born in Kabwe as compared to those who just come on transfer. I have personally linked this problem to lead poisoning.

We saw the tailings – highly toxic piles of lead-rich ore that had been dumped over the nearly 100 years when the smelter was operation. These small hills of stone and gravel up to 50 feet high are the legacy that is getting into the children’s blood.

Just 50 feet from those tailing piles dozens of school children raced barefoot over a sandy football pitch, most likely unaware that they are picking up high lead from the dust all around them. Although 400 parts per million is the safe limit in Zambia, we found 10,000 to 15,000 parts per million.

We had been prepared to see the damage caused by lead poisoning but it was not easy to spot anything unusual. It was when we talked to nurses, teachers and parents that we learned how lead affects children there: it damages the developing neurological system, making it hard for children to learn and behave in a classroom.

Lead poisoning is often a silent disease – symptoms can be subtle such as degraded ability to learn, stomach upsets and other less-than- catastrophic effects.

So people continue to build houses near the mine, literally in the shadow of the towering slag piles. In Makalulu and other neighborhoods where thousands of children and adults lack resources to relocate, health teams told parents to prevent the children from playing outside. This has been inadequate and ineffective.

“This is a public health crisis – these are the highest blood lead readings I have ever seen,” said team member Dr. Jack Caravanos, Blacksmith/Pure Earth technical advisor and CUNY professor.

“Part of the population has acute lead poisoning, above the level that causes mental impairment.”

Lackson Mwanza , head teacher at the David Ramusho School, told me “dealing with lead will help improve mental capacity of the children.”

When we asked the parents if they knew about the danger from lead, most said they knew something but not enough to prevent their kids from getting lead into their bodies.

People are so poor in Kabwe that they had resorted to taking the lead tailings into their houses to try and extract some lead for sale.

And the government is considering reopening the smelter for a new run at lead production.

Gibson Chileshe, 62, was walking past the mine and told me “some of us are against reopening production at the mine, but people want jobs.” Many have registered to get a job if it reopens.



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”

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

Battery Recycling Done Correctly

Worker in protective gear with a one-ton chunk of lead; an ingot that will now be sold.

RSR battery recycling plant in Indianapolis

After visiting so many terrible, appalling, toxic backyard battery recyclers in the developing world, we thought we should see how batteries could be handled safely.

Last week we visited RSR Corporation’s lead-acid battery recycling plant in Indianapolis. RSR is one of the largest recyclers of used lead-acid batteries (ULAB), with three plants in the U.S., and others in Europe.

The Indianapolis facility has a reputation of being one of the best run and cleanest operations for battery recycling anywhere in the world. Bob Finn, the company’s CEO, and A J Williams, V.P. of Operations, kindly arranged to give us a tour.

The plant sits on a 30-acre site on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Over two hundred workers take thousands of used batteries each day and turn them into lead, which is sold back to battery manufacturers, for the most part. Almost all of the battery is recycled, including the plastic case.

The batteries arrive shrink-wrapped from across the country in dozens of trucks that line up waiting for their turn to unload. While they are being stored, the batteries are kept on metal trays to contain any accidental leaks.

Once inside the facility, an enormous amount of effort goes into keeping lead out of the environment, and away from workers. For a start, workers must change their street clothes when they arrive, and wear protective gear whenever they are in the plant, including masks. All these are washed daily on site. Workers take a shower when they change into their street clothes too, so that they do not carry lead back to their kids at home.

Around the plant, using protective gear is mandatory, and you even need to vacuum your work clothes when you leave some areas of the plant.

Their health results are impressive. Workers are monitored for lead levels every three months, and on average are only measuring just above 10 micrograms/dl – truly a terrific result. Workers who have less than 17 micrograms/dl are given a bonus. (OSHA calls for action when a worker’s blood lead levels reach at least 30 µg/dL).

Twelve large fans work to create a negative pressure inside the facility, so no lead dust puffs out of the place. Instead, it is all circulated through a series of filters so that nothing escapes into the environment.

Emissions to the environment are also really low as the facility has spent millions on a state-of-the-art electrostatic precipitator. This device takes almost all the lead, SO2 and other pollutants out of the stack emissions. The equipment is not mandatory for lead smelters – RSR has chosen to do this because they think it is the right thing to do. It is a source of great pride for the firm.

There are also complex pieces of equipment monitoring water effluent. The company tests all waste streams constantly, in a well-equipped laboratory with spectrometers and other gadgets.

Scott Strole (right) oversees the lab team to make sure everything is safe and clean.

The concern over pollution can be seen everywhere, from performance statistics and posters, to the attention that is paid to just keeping the floors well swept at all times.

It was an impressive visit, and we were glad to have the chance to see lead being managed safely, after so many visits to backyard smelters that looked like this…

… where people process lead waste like this..

So, how can we help battery recycling in the developing world?

No one would expect a developing country to move immediately to the kind of performance I saw at RSR overnight. But such companies serve as examples of how lead, and lead-acid batteries can be managed safely. There are lessons to be learnt here, for GAHP (Global Alliance on Health and Pollution) countries slowly moving their lead-acid battery management toward safe processes.

The solution will be gradual, moving step-by-step, country-by-country. The basic process must be:

  • Find a way to ensure batteries are only processed by formal, cleaner facilities, and incorporate incentives so that this happens with battery economics, not only with enforcement of regulations (which can be difficult, to say the least);
  • Improve those formal facilities step by step, aiming for better controls each time;
  • Clean up the legacy contaminated sites, once we can be sure they will not re-occur.

And all the time, remember why we do this. It’s for these children to be safe…