Lead Battery Background

Hazardous battery recycling on the streets of New Delhi. A child disassembles a spent truck battery on the sidewalk to sell lead to unregistered recycling units.

Global lead consumption is expected to exceed 10 million tons in 2011 and approximately 80% of the lead produced is used in manufacturing lead batteries.[1] There is immense growth in the demand for lead batteries in developing countries reflecting growth rates in the motorized vehicle, computer, telecommunications, and solar energy industries. China is the world’s largest manufacturer of lead batteries and between 2004 and 2010, lead battery production in China increased 133%. It is estimated that the Chinese lead battery output will continue to grow at an annual rate of 16.7% from 2009.[2]

OK International is working to improve the environmental performance of one of the world's most polluting industries, affecting the health and educational opportunity of millions of children around the globe. The Better Environmental Sustainability Targets (BEST) certification provides recognition for lead battery manufacturers that meet minimum emission standards and agree to take back used batteries for environmentally sound recycling. The objective is to reduce emissions from lead battery plants and recyclers, and prevent lead poisoning through an incentive program for these companies.

Impact of Lead Exposure

Lead poisoning is the most serious environmental health threat to children and one of the most significant contributors to occupational disease. Lead causes symptoms ranging from the loss of neurological function to death depending upon the extent and duration of exposure. In children, moderate lead exposure is responsible for a significant decrease in school performance, lowering IQ scores, and is linked with hyperactive and violent behavior. Both children and adults can suffer from a range of illnesses including effects on the central nervous system, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, and blood forming system. Lead also affects the reproductive system in both men and women. The annual cost of lead poisoning in children in the U.S. alone is estimated to exceed $43.4 billion. Worldwide estimates are that lead exposures are costing $977 billion (U.S. dollars) annually in low and middle-income countries which accounts for more than one percent of global GDP.[3]

By the year 2000, nearly all developed countries had removed lead from gasoline. Most developing countries have followed suit and fewer than 10 countries continue to use lead gasoline additives. Lead battery manufacturing and recycling are now the most significant source of lead exposures throughout the world. The average blood lead level among children residing near battery plants in developing countries is 13 times the average level observed for children in the United States, and the average worker's blood lead level in battery manufacturing plants in developing countries is over four times the level considered to be elevated by the US CDC for the purposes of surveillance.[4][5]

Mass Poisoning Incidents

Battery manufacturing plant's young neighbors exposed to hazardous lead debris dumped out their back door. (Bhubaneswar, India).

Although in most cases ongoing exposure to lead causes chronic lead poisoning among children and adults, there have been many reports of localized acute lead poisonings affecting large numbers of people. Over the last twenty years there have been many mass poisoning incidents worldwide attributed to the manufacturing and recycling of lead batteries. These incidents have affected workers and surrounding residents including children, some of whom have died or suffer permanent neurological damage as a result of these exposures. A description of some of the most widely reported incidents from China, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Senegal, Trinidad, and Vietnam is available here.

[1] International Lead and Zinc Study Group (ILZSG) http://www.ilzsg.org/static/enduses.aspx?from=1
[2] Qi Wang, 废铅酸电池再生于污染控制 (Reproduction of Lead acid Battery and Pollution Control, Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences), July 2010
[3] Attina, Teresa M., and Leonardo Trasande. Economic costs of childhood lead exposure in low-and middle-income countries. Environ Health Perspect 121.9 (2013): 1097-1102.
[4] Gottesfeld, P, and Pkhrel, AK. Review: Lead exposure in battery manufacturing and recycling in developing countries and among children in nearby communities. JOEH 8:520-532, 2011.
[5] http://www.cdc.gov/osels/ph_surveillance/nndss/casedef/lead_current.htm