Recycling of lead batteries & its impact
Recycling is generally described as a mantra for clean environment .But it is not so always. Recycling is not an unalloyed good thing. An important example is recycling of lead in batteries. The way it is being done, it has been leading to environmental pollution as well as deaths of children. All over the world, the unsafe recycling of lead batteries, mostly from automobiles, is one of the most serious environmental health threats to children. In past, automotive industry had almost totally eliminated lead additives from gasoline in an effort to become less polluting. As a result, the levels of lead in blood in millions of people around the world fell dramatically. But now, those levels are rising again, largely because of faulty recycling of lead in automobile batteries.
Global demand for lead has grown ten-fold in a decade mostly due to the rapid increase in the number of automobiles around the world. Currently, about 1.4 billion vehicles are on the road and each of these have lead batteries. An estimated 85 percent of lead in use today goes into batteries, mostly for automobiles. And when the batteries run down, 99 percent of this lead is recycled to make new batteries. Lead batteries are “the world’s most recycled consumer product”, according to the international Lead Association, a London-based trade body. As a result of recycling, we barely mine lead any more. More than 6 million tons of lead collected for reuse each year.
The business of lead recycling is, unlike e- waste recycling, very profitable. All over the world, small time operators outcompete the legitimate industry in recycling lead from auto batteries, because their low costs mean they can pay more to buy used batteries. Up to half of all batteries end up in the informal economy , “ where unregulated and often illegal recycling operations break open battery cases , spilling acid and lead dust onto the ground , and smelt lead in open-air furnaces that spew toxic fumes and dust that contaminate surrounding neighbourhoods” according to a report published in July by Pure earth and UNICEF. Lead emitted by battery recycling plant can poison the breast milk of women in the immediate neighbourhood of plant. Toxic lead pollution from a battery recycling plant can damage the brains of children. Homes along with schools and parks in a zone around a battery recycling factory become and remain contaminated with lead unless a cleanup operation is undertaken. Studies in many countries have found widespread lead contamination of soil around recycling plants in dense urban slums and close to schools in cities. Lead levels in contaminated soils averaged 23,200 parts per million – 1000 times natural levels and roughly 100 times US safety levels for soil.
The UNICEF’s report said that a third of world’s children are being poisoned by lead, from recycled batteries and other sources. In other words, around 800 million children live with levels of lead in their blood above the five micrograms per decilitre safety standard set by the US Centre for Disease control and prevention. Lead is a potent neurotoxin and there is no known safe level. Besides causing fevers and gastrointestinal problems, it damages the intellectual development of young children even at low levels, reducing IQ and attention span, as well as causing mood disorders. It has been suggested as an important trigger for violent behaviour in communities across the United States and elsewhere. Some point to how crime levels dropped in many cities as lead was removed from gasoline. Lead is readily breathed in or ingested. It enters the bloodstream which delivers it efficiently to organs from the gastrointestinal system to the brain.
A new disturbing new problem has arisen due to rapid growth of renewable energy, which requires batteries to capture and store energy when the sun is shining and the wind blowing. Domestic solar panels in remote rural areas may be a particular problem. Almost all home solar users have lead batteries .These batteries allow people to store energy during day light hours to run TVs and electric lights at night. But there is no arrangement for collecting the batteries for safe recycling. The issue has not been addressed by any definitive action or effective policy.
Brazil shut 80 percent of its informal sector mainly through economic incentives. But so far, there have been minimal efforts by most of the governments. Africa, Southeast Asia, China face similar crisis. China is now cleaning up and hundreds of plants have been shut down. And there are more contaminated sites than plants. The plants keep on moving. US environmental rules governing lead recycling plants have been tightened recently. But even with a tightening of operating standards, there will remain a huge legacy of contaminated sites.
In India, a study published last year by Toxics Link (a New Delhi- based NGO) found that about 90 percent of lead batteries in India ended up recycled by the informal sector. The study mapped neighbourhoods in major cities, such as Delhi, where workshops recycling lead batteries operate apparently with no official oversight. But government of India is not taking any action. Its regulations are weak and there is poor enforcement. Companies are supposed to take back 80 percent of batteries but there is no enforcement nor any financial incentive, so it doesn’t happen. Instead, small-time dealers and merchants rule. On the other hand, the India Lead zinc Development Association dismissed the well-researched toxics Link study as “exaggerated and totally flawed”.
Recycling of lead-acid batteries must be carried out with care to minimize environmental contamination and protect the health of workers and communities. India should make strict rules for regulating the recycling of lead and enforce it. There is a need to sideline the informal sector operators by the formal sector for the collection of the batteries. This work should be given to the companies manufacturing the batteries, with appropriate incentives and punishment. Children dwelling or studying around the recycling units should be regularly tested for any trace of lead in blood levels and treatment be provided on top priority wherever cases are detected. Healthcare practitioners should have training on the diagnosis and management of lead poisoning, educating local communities on the health Healthcare hazards of lead, and informing the authorities when lead poisoning associated with recycling is discovered. Furthermore, government should ensure the availability of laboratory capacity for blood lead testing.