Lead-acid batteries have the highest recycling rate (99%) of any product in the United States.1
Most of the lead going into new batteries comes from recycled batteries, not straight from a mine.2
The vast majority of lead produced globally every year is used in lead-acid batteries. In 2012, 87.5% of lead in the United States was used in batteries.3
Almost all vehicles, even new electric cars, have lead-acid batteries containing an average of 20 lbs of lead.4
Lead pollution is one of the biggest health threats to children around the world.5
Lead-acid batteries are known for being reliable, relatively inexpensive, and maintenance free.6 These batteries have been used as starter batteries in vehicles for over 100 years. They are also used to power wheelchairs, golf carts, emergency lights, and many other devices. In recent decades, this old battery technology has gained new importance. Use of lead-acid batteries has expanded as the need for battery-powered forklifts and back-up power for cell phone towers, cloud services, and other industrial applications has grown.
Lead-acid batteries raise several important issues with respect to sustainability. Lead is a highly toxic substance that poses danger to children and workers, and has to be managed carefully. Despite those hazards, lead-acid batteries are also the most easily and efficiently recycled batteries. However, in the past decade, lead recycling has begun to move out of the United States, raising new social and environmental justice concerns regarding the manufacturing and recycling of lead-acid batteries, especially in developing countries.
The use of lead in lead-acid batteries far outweighs other applications, such as ammunition and oxides.3 Source: USGS.
The lead-acid battery is one of the oldest and most common batteries in use. Although the basic technology has changed relatively little, there have been key advances in the industry during the twentieth century.
In 1911, Charles Kettering invented the electric starter for cars. This invention gave lead-acid batteries their importance. The electric starter was first marketed in a 1912 Cadillac and became standard on most cars in the 1920s.7 The popularity of the electric starter meant that as the automobile industry grew, so did the lead-acid battery industry. Virtually every car sold in the twentieth century included a lead-acid battery containing 20 pounds of lead. In the United States, that means there are 5 billion pounds of lead under the hood of cars on the road today. Even new electric cars, like Chevy Volts and Teslas, still contain lead-acid batteries for low-voltage lighting and accessories.
There have been only a few major changes to the lead-acid battery since its use in vehicles was popularized. An important change came in the 1970s, with the advent of sealed lead-acid batteries. Early lead-acid batteries installed in cars were unsealed and vehicle owners had to check the level of the electrolyte frequently. Owners would fill up the car with gas, and top off the water in the battery. This was necessary because as a battery was used, the water in the electrolyte solution split into hydrogen and oxygen.8 Starting in the 1970s, lead-acid batteries in vehicles were sealed, and therefore, made "maintenance free."9 A sealed battery has the ability to recombine oxygen and hydrogen to create water, eliminating water loss as an issue. Now most consumers only pay attention to their lead-acid battery every four or five years, when it dies and has to be replaced.
An Exide advertisement for maintenance free batteries. Source: Yellow Pages.62
Environmental regulations had far-reaching consequences for the lead-acid battery industry in the twentieth century. In the 1920s, public attention focused on the threats that high-levels of lead exposure in factories posed to workers as a result of Alice Hamilton's studies on the relationship between worker illnesses and their occupational exposure to chemicals.10 In the 1960s and 1970s, public attention expanded to the danger of chronic exposure to lower levels of lead in surrounding communities. Oftentimes, the communities neighboring lead smelters or battery factories are home to minority populations or lower income residents, raising social justice concerns.
Residents living near smelters, such as this one in Tacoma, Washington, are often unable to move their children away from the danger of lead exposure. No one will buy homes in the area and the families often do not have the resources to move somewhere else. Source: Wikimedia Commons. 63
Although some federal policies to protect workers were adopted in the 1920s, stricter regulations were levied on all sectors of the lead-acid battery industry in the 1970s and 1980s. These policies were the result of new federal workplace safety and environmental regulations mandating that the facilities minimize workplace exposure to lead and reduce airborne emissions. The effectiveness of these policies can be assessed by measuring the blood lead levels of workers and nearby residents. These regulations have proven to be a powerful tool for local communities pressing companies to clean up their operations.
As the lead industry has worked to comply with these regulations since the 1970s, smaller smelters, recyclers, and battery plants have often closed rather than invest in costly pollution control technology. As a result, the industry has consolidated into larger smelters, manufacturing plants, and recycling operations that are able to take advantage of economies of scale to finance improvements such as wastewater treatment, negative airflow systems, and smokestack pollution controls. Unfortunately, many the smaller smelters and recycling facilities that were closed in the 1960s and 1970s continue to pose often unrecognized environmental hazards today.11
One of the advantages of the consolidation of the United States lead industry into fewer, larger smelters has been the creation of what the industry describes as a "closed loop" battery supply chain. Battery manufacturers coordinate the transport of the batteries throughout all stages of life. Trucks transport used lead-acid batteries to recycling smelters, where they pick up newly smelted lead. They deliver the new lead to manufacturing facilities, where they pick up new batteries for retailers. When they deliver those batteries to retailers, they pick up used batteries which they deliver to recycling smelters, starting the process over again.12 This circular system ensures that used batteries are delivered to a recycling facility and therefore results in the majority of lead-acid batteries being recycled.
Life-cycle analyses indicate that recycling the lead decreases the overall energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions because recycled lead displaces demand for new lead from mines.13 The mining and smelting of the raw materials that go into lead-acid batteries requires the most energy of any step in the lifecycle of a lead-acid battery. As a result, recycled lead requires about one-third that the energy needed to produce lead from raw ore.11
A shift in the use of lead-acid batteries emerged in the early 2000s.14 Although lead-acid batteries had long been used for a variety of industrial purposes, the rise of the internet economy gave a boost to lead demand. More large warehouses storing items for shipping meant a need for more battery powered forklifts. Larger internet cloud servers meant a need for more battery back-up systems. The expansion of the cell-phone network meant a need for more battery back-up at each tower. Although we often think of the internet as operating in the ether, the expansion of the internet and the cell phone network has intensified resource use in many ways, including the lead industry and the industry's potential social and human health consequences.
Warehouses like this Amazon warehouse in Spain require lead-acid battery powered forklifts to move items. Source: Wikimedia Commons. 64
Lead-acid batteries have been recycled for almost as long as they have been manufactured. In the past decade, the geography of recycling has begun to change. Increasingly, lead-acid batteries are being sent out of the United States for recycling, where operating costs are often lower and industry is less strictly regulated. In 2003, almost no lead-acid batteries were exported to Mexico. However, exports jumped to just over 50 million kg in 2004 and have continued to rise significantly since.15 Lead-acid battery exports to Mexico from the United States increased 112% between 2009 and 2010 alone.16 In 2011, just under 350 million kg of lead-acid batteries were exported to Mexico, and over 100 million kg were exported to other countries.15 In countries such as Mexico, the health and environmental regulations are less strict, which raises environmental justice concerns.
Exports are not the only cause of increased battery recycling in developing countries. Most countries have a domestic lead-acid battery industry. In countries such as China, the lead-acid battery industry is rapidly growing. In many countries, however, lead remains under-regulated. Communities surrounding smelters and recycling facilities in developing countries often face higher levels of lead pollution. The changing geography of lead recycling, and the growth of under-regulated recycling facilities in developing countries, is a cause for concern.
The lead-acid battery has a relatively simple chemistry, especially compared to newer batteries like lithium-ion. The largest component of the lead-acid battery is lead. About 20 pounds of lead are used in each automobile starter battery, making up more than half of the battery's 40 pound weight.22 The second largest component of the battery is sulfuric acid, which serves as the electrolyte.
The plastic container of the battery is made from polypropylene, a type of recyclable plastic. The terminals and grids are made of elemental lead, although the grids are mixed with another alloy or antimony. The paste that is applied to the grids is made of lead oxide, sulfuric acid, and water. The negative plate also has expander applied to it. The separators between plates are made of insulating material and the electrolyte, which bathes the battery, is composed of sulfuric acid and water. 23
From a sustainability perspective, the most important materials used in lead-acid batteries are the lead and sulfuric acid. These materials will be examined through the lens of criticality. Read more about sustainability.
This is a diagram of a lead-acid battery, with six battery cells, designated by the white rectangles. The black rectangles represent the negative plates, or anodes and the red rectangles represent the cathodes.The blue rectangles are the separator that prevents the cathode and anode from touching, which would short circuit the battery. The liquid within the battery is sulfuric acid. Electrons travel from the anode to the cathode, producing current and voltage from the battery.
Sulfuric acid is the electrolyte in the lead-acid battery. About 90% of the sulfur consumed in the United States is converted into sulfuric acid, which is used in batteries and many other applications.24
The locations of the world's top producers of sulfur in 2013.24 Source: USGS
China, The US, Russia, Canada, and Saudi Arabia produce the most sulfur. However, no single country dominates sulfur production.24 Source: USGS.
Looking at sulfuric acid through the lens of criticality reveals that there is little risk of running out. In 2014, 70.4 million metric tons of sulfur were produced globally.x Sulfuric acid is actually the most produced chemical in the world due to its wide range of uses in industry. Fortunately, the amount of sulfur available is virtually limitless, present in oil shale, coal, natural gas, and volcanic deposits.24
The production of sulfuric acid is not without supply risk concerns. One-fifth of global sulfur resources, which include the industrial processes that produce recoverable sulfur or byproduct sulfuric acid, are located in the United States. 24 However, the United States consumes almost as much as it produces, and therefore does not monopolize production or trade. Since the country is not trading very much of the sulfur it produces, the supply is unlikely to be restricted by the United States. Additionally, no country has a monopoly on sulfur production, the country producing the most being China at 15%.24 As a result, there is little concern that the supply is at risk.
The Frasch process used to be used to extract sulfur from the ground. However, the last facility using this process in the United States closed in 2000, due to the prevalence of sulfur recovery. Sulfur recovery rendered mining sulfur unnecessary, putting facilities using the Frasch process out of business.The Clean Air Act limited the amount of pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, that can be released into the air. Many facilities that would otherwise emit sulfur, such as petroleum refiners, began recovering sulfur instead. As a result, in the U.S., the majority of sulfur is recovered from industrial activities, such as such as petroleum refining. In 2013, the United States produced 8.6 million tons of recovered sulfuric acid.24
Over time, less mined sulfur and more recovered sulfur has been produced in the United States.24 Source: USGS.
Additional sulfuric acid is produced as a byproduct of smelting processes, making up 7% of the United States' sulfur production.24 Sulfur dioxide is captured at smelters using both scrubbers and electrostatic precipitators, which remove dusts produced from smelting from the sulfur dioxide. It is then converted into sulfuric acid for use in the fertilizer or lead-acid battery industries.25
Sulfuric acid is a corrosive material and can damage the lungs. It is suspected to be a carcinogen and high-levels of exposure can cause death.26 While not considered a global health concern, likely because the Clean Air Act limits how much can be emitted from industry, it can be a dangerous material for those who work with it or live near facilities using it. If airborne sulfuric acid is inhaled, the acid will corrode or damage the lungs.26
The use of lead in lead-acid batteries is of concern largely because of the health threats that it poses to people, especially children, workers, and ecosystems when it is mined, refined, disposed of, and recycled. Lead is used in ammunition, some types of metal casting, and as oxides in glass and ceramics. However, over 80% of United States lead is used in lead-acid batteries.3
Since 1975, lead's primary use has been lead-acid batteries.3 Source: USGS.
The United States' role in producing lead has decreased significantly, dropping from 55% of global lead production in 1950 to 25% in 2013.27 While mined lead is no longer refined in the United States, with the closing of the last primary lead smelter in 2013, lead ore is still mined and shipped abroad for processing. Much of the new lead used in the United States is now imported from Canada, Mexico, and Australia. Although the U.S. still produces lead from recycled sources, some of that production has been shifted abroad too. Since countries such as Mexico have weaker regulations regarding occupational safety and pollution controls than the United States, the export and import of lead raises environmental justice concerns.
The top five lead producers in 2013.27 Source: USGS.
The majority of global primary lead is produced in China.27 Source: USGS.
The production of mined lead by historical top producers.3 Source: USGS.
There is not likely to be a supply risk of lead. The amount of lead mined each year is very small in comparison to lead reserves. Global production of lead reached 5.5 million metric tons in 2014, while the world's reserves are estimated at 87 million metric tons.27 Supply risk could be a concern due to China's monopoly on mined lead production, producing 53% of global lead in 2013. However, the concern is mitigated by the fact that lead reserves exist in many countries around the world. Lead is vulnerable to supply restrictions because it is essential in lead-acid batteries, which are widely used. The material also has significant consequences for the environment and human health.
Lead exposure causes health problems, especially in children. Although the lead sealed away inside a battery poses little health threat, when the lead is processed, such as during mining, smelting, manufacturing and recycling, it can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. Communities surrounding facilities working with lead that do not follow, or are not subject to, regulation suffer the most acute consequences of lead exposure. To add to social justice concerns, the communities surrounding smelters, factories, or mines, are often disproportionately occupied by people of color or of lower income. 28
While lead poisoning affects both children and adults, the risk to children is especially troubling since their neurological systems are still developing and their bodies are less able to excrete lead. 29 In the US, the Centers for Disease Control has established strict standards for blood lead levels. These standards have been tightened as scientific knowledge about the threat of lead exposure has developed. The CDC set the standard at 40 µg/dL in 1971 and then lowered it to 25 µg/dL in 1985, 10 µg/dL in 1991, and 5 µg/dL in 2012.19 Although it is necessary to establish limits, there is no safe level of lead exposure.
The CDC maximum acceptable blood lead level in children has decreased significantly over time.19 Source: Turner (2015).
Regulatory policy in the United States and other countries has established limits on occupational exposure in the workplace, ambient levels of lead in the air, and the amount of lead that can be emitted by a facility. Despite these policies, threats from lead pollution have persisted in the United States and abroad.
Primary lead is refined lead that is produced from lead ore (which comes from mines). Lead is usually mined from a mineral called galena, which is often found alongside sphalerite, a source of zinc.30 Miners drill and blast the rock in an underground mine. The resulting ore is only about 4% lead.30 The ore is crushed and ground up into a powder. The lead, zinc and copper components of the ore are separated in a flotation tank, from which they can be skimmed from the surface of the tank.19 Once the lead, copper and zinc are separated, the lead is sent to a smelter for refining.30
At the smelter, the lead concentrate is melted in a blast furnace. The lead concentrate forms several layers in the furnace, the bottom layer holding the lead. Impurities are removed during what is called drossing, which involves heating the lead in kettles and the cooling it.31 This process causes copper, antimony, and other compounds to rise to the surface where they can be removed. Heat continues to be applied to the lead to further remove impurities.31
Secondary lead is lead produced from recycled sources. The used lead is smelted, purified, and prepared for re-use in batteries and other applications. The process of producing secondary lead uses 60% less energy than producing primary lead. The refined lead will be used to create the plates and terminals of the battery. Today, new batteries contain about 80% recycled lead in the US.
United States production of secondary lead overtook that of primary lead in the late 1950s.21 Source: USGS.
With a 99% domestic recycling rate, almost all lead from used batteries is recycled and used in new batteries.32 The US no longer produces any primary lead, but several secondary lead smelters remain in operation.
The percentage of children in locations where lead is processed with blood lead levels over 10 µg/dL. Source: Blacksmith Institute, Kuijp et al (2013), and Turner (2015).
The average blood level found in children living in lead processing communities. The red line represents a 5 µg/dL concentration of lead in the blood, which is the current World Health Organization standard. Source: Blacksmith Institute, Kuijp et al (2013), and Turner (2015).
The town of La Oroya is bordered by the Andes mountain range borders the smelter, which prevents wind from carrying away lead emitted by the smelter. Source: Wikipedia.65
In 2006, the Blacksmith Institute named La Oroya, Peru, one of the ten most polluted places in the world, ranked alongside Chernobyl, in response to studies conducted in 1999 revealing high blood lead levels in children in the area surrounding the smelter.33 In 2013, Peru mined about 5% of the world's lead, much of it from La Oroya.27 The smelter and mine were purchased in 1997 by Doe Run, a U.S.-based company. The facility mines and processes metals,working with lead, copper, zinc, and sulfur dioxide. The smelter employs 3,000 of 35,000 people in and around La Oroya. Lax regulations, poor pollution control technology, and the mountainous terrain have combined to make the pollution at La Oroya exceptionally bad.34
The La Oroya primary smelter in Peru. Source: Democrat & Chronicle.66
In 2004, almost every child in the area between the ages of 6 months and 12 years had blood lead levels over 10 µg/dL, which is twice the current CDC standard.35 Many newborns were born with dangerously high blood lead concentrations due to prenatal exposure. Lead poisoning was common and many children lost feeling in their limbs. The environmental burden of the smelter's lead emissions was largely carried by the community, since the smelter operated with few pollution controls.
The Peruvian government has since attempted to limit the community's lead exposure from the smelter. Biannual testing of children's blood lead levels is carried out and children are often taken further away from the smelter during the day to limit exposure due to the level of pollution the smelter has caused.36
After Doe Run purchased the smelter, it agreed to clean up operations by adopting pollution control systems, investing in community development, and curbing emissions.33 In addition, the facility has adopted an alert program that warns people to stay inside when the conditions are especially hazardous. In 2008, the Blacksmith Institute sent experts to report on the situation in La Oroya. The experts found that the levels of pollution in the area remain very high, but that there had been some improvement.
When the lead pollution in La Oroya was first recognized, many residents worried that government efforts to clean up the smelter would threaten their jobs. However, in recent years, residents have actively challenged the Peruvian government and Doe Run. In 2005, residents won a suit against the Peruvian State for not protecting the health of the people in La Oroya. In 2007 and 2008 citizens of La Oroya challenged The Renco Group, the parent company of Doe Run, asking for compensation for health damages to children caused by lead pollution, an attempt that has not been successful.37 The La Oroya smelter was sold by Doe Run in August of 2015.20
Located in the Guangdong Province of China, the Heyuan battery factory processes 10,000 tons of lead each year to make over a million vehicle batteries.38 Like many other battery manufacturers in China, the Heyuan factory is located in a region where pollution controls are poorly enforced.
Laiguo Chen, a researcher at South China Institute of Environmental Sciences, tested families living near the plant for lead exposure by measuring lead in food, household dust, and the residents' blood. In each case, proximity to the smelter meant more lead exposure.38 The majority, 91%, of individuals living within 500 meters of the factory were found to have blood lead levels exceeding China's standards of 10 µg/dL. Individuals living further away from the smelter had an average blood lead level of 3.85 µg/dL.38 This creates a social justice issue since people living closer to the factory are at risk of lead poisoning.
Environmental protests in Xiamen in 2007. In recent years, environmental protests in China have focused on lead exposure. Source: Facts and Details.67
In March 2011, the government took steps to clean up the Heyuan battery factory. The decree brought about the investigation of facilities involved in all aspects of the lead-acid battery industry, many of which were forcibly closed across China. However, the government found it difficult to regulate, and even investigate, small, unregistered facilities.29
Unfortunately, the story of the Heyuan battery factory is just one of many instances of lead pollution in China.39 There have been many lead poisoning incidents due to airborne emissions from smokestacks or dust blowing into nearby neighborhoods. These problems have led to large protests in places including Shanghai.40 In some cases, the protests have resulted in riots and damage to factories.29
While many facilities that were causing unacceptable levels of lead pollution were closed, lead poisoning will continue to be a problem in China for the foreseeable future since many smaller and unregistered facilities are not well regulated by the government. In addition, the demand for lead-acid batteries in the country is growing rapidly. The growth of electric bikes and vehicles continues to fuel the demand. The annual lead consumption in China has increased approximately 20% every year from 1999 to 2009.29
The Herculaneum smelter's towering smokestack can be seen from almost anywhere in the town. The smelter closed in 2013.
Herculaneum, Missouri was a company town ruled by lead. The smelter dominated town, providing jobs and services, from the beginning of operations in 1892 until the smelter closed in 2013.41 Many town residents lived in company owned housing, went to schools in the shadow of the plant, and relied upon the smelter for municipal services.41 Life in Herculaneum had been strongly tied to the smelter for generations, and living in Herculaneum meant living with lead.
That began to change in the 1970s, when the U.S. passed new environmental regulations to clean up air and water pollution. The Herculaneum Smelter had a checkered record of compliance in the 1980s and 1990s. The Environmental Protection Agency and Missouri Department of Natural Resources attempted multiple times to bring the facility into compliance with little success.42
A sign on a lawn outside of Doe Run's Herculaneum smelter warns against trespassing due to high levels of lead in the area.
The turning point for Herculaneum came in 2001 when a resident made the Missouri Department of Natural Resources aware of dust spills from trucks on city streets. When it turned out the dust was 30% lead, the long-standing pollution issues in Herculaneum drew new attention. Health surveys showed a clear relationship between where children lived, their blood lead levels, and the smelter. The percentage of children under 6 years of age with blood lead levels over 10 µg/dL increased with proximity to the smelter.19
In response to these discoveries, the EPA and Missouri Department of Natural Resources required Doe Run to make changes to clean up the smelter's operations and the neighboring community. The company was ordered to further upgrade equipment to improve pollution controls in 2001. Doe Run agreed to purchase 160 homes in 2004 by the end of the year because the yards were contaminated by lead. The federal government adopted even tighter standards for airborne lead emissions in 2008, partially in response to continued contamination issues in Herculaneum. In 2011, the courts awarded $2 million each to 16 local children who had suffered lead poisoning. As these challenges mounted, and the Herculaneum smelter continued to struggle to meet the tighter regulations, its owners chose to close the smelter 2013.42
Quemetco's lead-acid battery recycling facility in Indianapolis. The facility is surrounded by neighborhoods. Source: Bing.68
Quemetco is a large secondary lead smelter in Indianapolis, Indiana. In the hazardous world of lead processing, it represents a success story. The smelter operates almost non-stop to recycle 10 million lead-acid batteries every year while meeting or exceeding all relevant occupational health and environmental regulations.43
Achieving this level of performance has required a significant investment by Quemetco. The company employs numerous technologies and safety practices to limit worker exposure. Workers must wear respirators. They observe strict hygiene policies, including hand washing and showers. Employees enter and exit the worksite through separate locker rooms to minimize lead transport.44 The plant monitors blood lead levels of workers and also sponsors testing of employees' children's' blood lead levels. Workers are given bonuses if their blood lead levels remain under 29 µg/dL.44
Quemetco has also adopted sophisticated pollution control technologies. For instance, airborne pollution is reduced by the use of a WESP, or Wet Electrostatic Precipitator, which removes particles from the emissions being released by the smelter. 45 The facility's lead emissions have been reduced by a huge margin and are now less than 5 pounds of lead per year. Quemetco's Indianapolis smelter was recognized by the city for its dedication to reducing lead and other emissions. 43 The success of Quemetco is notable in comparison to numerous other secondary lead smelters which have been closed in recent years.
Exide's now closed battery recycling smelter in Vernon, California had ongoing problems complying with state and federal regulations.
In contrast to Quemetco, the Exide secondary smelter in Vernon, California has a bad reputation for its effect on the surrounding environment and community. The smelter opened in 1922 and has been managed by Exide since 2000. The facility is located on a 15 acre plot about 5 miles outside of Los Angeles46 and had the capacity to recycle 9 million batteries every year.47
Since 2002, the Exide smelter regularly failed to meet state and federal pollution standards. In 2010, the California state government found that 110,000 residents of the surrounding area were at increased risk for cancer due to the activity of the smelter. Considering that 80% of the people affected were Latino, this raised social justice concerns.28 Starting in 2012, local residents, lead by a local environmental justice organization, Communities for a Better Environment, launched a campaign to close the Exide plant.
Exide made some efforts to improve operations at the facility in 2013 and 2014, but those efforts failed to bring the plant into compliance.48 In March 2015, Exide further acknowledged engaging in criminal behaviors, such as storing and transporting hazardous waste illegally. As a result, Exide agreed to pay for the closure of the facility and to cleanup the surrounding area at a cost of $47 million to avoid criminal prosecution.46 Concerns persist, however, since researchers discovered that as many as 10,000 homes may have been contaminated by the smelter prior to its closing.
Exide's battery recycling smelter in Vernon, California.
Thiaroye Sur Mer, Dakar, Senegal. Source: Blacksmith Institute.69
Between November 2007 and March 2008, 18 children under 5 years of age died in the Thiaroye Sur Mer neighborhood of Dakar due to lead poisoning. The cause was not a large-scale smelter or recycling facility. Instead, it was a product of small-scale, informal lead smelting and recycling that took place with few if any safety precautions. At such smelting sites in Thiaroye Sur Mer, lead levels in the soil were as high as 40% lead.49 When the price of lead rose, women began to dig up the polluted soil and sift through it, making as much money in an hour as they normally would in a day. But often they did so with their children at their sides. It is estimated that 40,000 people were exposed to dangerous levels of lead. The prevalence of the informal lead recycling industry in developing countries is a social injustice.
A boy in India burns lead from lead-acid batteries outside in the open. Such informal lead recycling exposes people to lead through inhalation and ingestion. However, informal recycling is very profitable and, therefore, common in developing countries. Image from Pure Earth.70
After the 18 children died, the blood lead levels of their siblings and mothers were tested. The average blood lead level of the siblings was 138.0 ± 60.4 µg/dL, which is more than 25 times higher than the standard for lead poisoning in the U.S.. The mothers also had very high levels of lead in their blood for adults, 55.3 ± 17.8 µg/dL.50 The siblings exhibited symptoms of lead exposure such as anxiety, crying, anorexia, headaches, and vomiting. Many children stopped speaking and were unable to stand. The town also experienced many pregnant women giving birth to stillborn babies.
Currently, the World Health Organization is treating residents affected by lead poisoning and the government is remediating the soil. While average lead levels for children between 1 and 5 years of age dropped to 53.5 µg/dL in 2010, the damage caused by lead poisoning is irreversible.49 An official used lead-acid battery collection center has been built in order to ensure that the batteries are recycled safely and an educational program has been established to highlight the dangers of lead to community members. However, many residents still do not believe the lead is harmful.
These actions are a step toward addressing the lead pollution issue, but not the environmental justice issue. The educational program, soil treatment, and collection center will decrease the risk of lead poisoning in the community, but developing countries, where informal lead recycling is prevalent, will continue to be disproportionately affected by the health problems that lead causes.
The circular path that lead follows in the lead-acid battery industry.
It is estimated that 99% of lead-acid batteries used in the United States are recycled, whether domestically or abroad. About 12% of used lead-acid batteries from the U.S. are exported to Mexico, which receives 83% of U.S. lead-acid battery exports. 16 These exports have increased in recent years as a major U.S. recycler, Johnson Controls, has established two secondary smelters in Mexico. Although Johnson Controls claims to meet high standards for worker health and pollution in Mexico, there are concerns that the lower costs and weaker regulatory standards in Mexico are contributing to the export of batteries to other Mexican facilities.19
Once the lead is recycled, much of it will go back into batteries. Used lead-acid batteries are so efficiently recycled that the secondary lead produced by the process satisfied most of the demand for lead. For example, secondary lead represented 91% of all lead produced in the United States in 2011.52
In the United States there are laws in 44 of the 50 states to ensure the recycling of lead-acid batteries. The only states without policies in place are Alaska, Alabama, Delaware, Kansas, Montana, and Missouri. Except for Maryland, the other 43 states have generally adopted Battery Council International's policy for recycling lead-acid batteries.
Most states ban the disposal of lead-acid batteries, require retailers to accept them for recycling, and require that consumers pay a fee if they do not allow their used lead-acid battery to be reclaimed for recycling. Such laws, many of which follow the recommendations of Battery Council International, help keep lead-acid batteries out of landfills and ensure they are recycled.
Regardless of whether or not a state has a policy addressing lead-acid batteries, collection and recycling of the batteries is common. Alaska, for instance, which does not have a policy requiring recycling, still has collection sites for lead-acid batteries. 53
In Title 40, Protection of Environment, the law requires that nickel-cadmium and lead-acid batteries be disposed of as Universal Wastes, meaning they must be taken to a specialized universal waste handling facility. According to the EPA, Universal Wastes are defined as hazardous wastes that are commonly produced. In states without laws pertaining to lead-acid batteries, the federal RCRA still prohibits the disposal of lead-acid batteries.54
Workers are protected by occupational exposure limits established by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. OSHA's 1910 standards mandate that workers cannot be exposed to an average exceeding 50 µg/m3 of lead in an 8 hour period. Workers' blood lead levels must be tested every 6 months, and if a worker's blood lead level exceeds 40 µg/dL, he or she must be notified and tested every 2 months. If a worker's blood level should reach 50 µg/dL, they must be temporarily removed from the work.55
The 1970 Clean Air Act set limits on air pollution, including emissions from industrial facilities. One of the pollutants the act focuses on is lead. Operating permits are given to each facility designating how much lead can be released and what the permit owner is required to do to reduce emissions.56 The most recent and strictest lead standards were established in 2008, setting the national air quality standard at 0.5 µg/m3 and the ambient emission standard at 0.15 µg/m3.19 This means that the concentration of lead anywhere in the United States should not exceed 0.5 µg/m3 and that facilities working with lead cannot release emissions with concentrations of lead higher than 0.15 µg/m3.
The Clean Water Act prohibits the release of pollutants in United States waters without a permit. The permit restricts the holder's lead discharge by mandating the use of the best available technology to reduce the amount of pollution. 57 This means that facilities working with lead have to take steps to remove lead from their wastewater before releasing it. The standard established in 1987 mandates that the concentration of lead being released must be less than 80 or 120 ppm.19
Superfund was created in 1980, giving the government the ability to clean up hazardous waste sites, often related to the processing of lead. Superfund holds those responsible for waste sites accountable, or if those responsible cannot be identified, performs a cleanup.58 The act, officially known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), has allowed the government to locate and analyze thousands of hazardous waste sites.59 There are many lead smelters or battery breakers that have closed without a thorough clean-up, and therefore, continue to affect the community around them. 11 The creation of Superfund allows the government to identify and clean-up sites where lead is present at dangerous levels. In practice, funds for such clean ups have been limited and many sites have yet to be addressed.
The Basel Convention was established on March 22, 1989 in Basel, Switzerland with the goal of regulating the movement of hazardous waste across country borders. The purpose of the convention was to prevent companies from dumping hazardous waste in countries with weaker environmental regulations. Countries that have ratified the convention may not ship hazardous waste to any country within the Basel Convention without consent, are discouraged from shipping waste to a country outside of the convention, and are required to dispose of their waste safely.60 This should limit the flow of lead-acid batteries abroad, as lead-acid batteries are considered hazardous waste. The United States did not ratify the Basel Convention, however, and is not bound by this policy.
There are many reasons to be concerned about the sustainability of lead-acid batteries: Where are batteries recycled? How commonplace is informal recycling? If newer technologies, such as lithium-ion batteries, displace lead, what will happen to the lead? How can these issues be addressed, and what would be the implications for the sustainability of lead-acid batteries?
A significant number of used lead-acid batteries (ULABs) are currently exported from the United States to other countries for recycling. Part of the incentive behind the flow of ULABs abroad is because of the less stringent regulations concerning lead in other countries. Will such exports continue to increase, endangering the health of people in communities surrounding facilities that have little to no regulation? Organizations such as Occupational Knowledge International, Fronteras de la Comunes, and the CEC have raised such concerns.
The lead-acid battery industry does not consider such exports a problem, however. Johnson Controls, a U.S.-based company with secondary smelters in Mexico, accounts for a large percentage of the exports to Mexico. In addition, in 2011, the EPA implemented new regulations requiring companies to notify the EPA when exporting lead-acid batteries.x Many countries, including China, are adopting lead regulations similar to those of the United States.
However, as the case studies above demonstrate, where and how lead-acid batteries are recycled is information that is crucial to protecting workers and neighboring communities. In the case of lead-acid batteries, large-scale and technologically advanced operations are key to ensuring that the risks of lead are managed appropriately. It is the small-scale, informal recycling operations that pose the greatest risk.
Informal lead-acid battery recycling, a popular industry in developing countries, is a pressing sustainability challenge. Informal recycling is often performed out in the open and with no pollution controls. Much more lead is lost in the informal recycling process than in large smelters. The problem is where that lead goes. All too often it winds up in the soil, the food, and the bodies of people smelting the lead or living nearby.
Many people in developing countries smelt lead informally because it pays well and they are unaware of the dangers of coming into close contact with lead. Programs to educate people in countries such as Senegal on the dangers of lead and informal recycling are already underway. Such educational campaigns on the health problems lead causes can help deter informal lead recycling.
Lithium-ion batteries may very well replace the lead-acid battery in many applications, especially if the price falls. If lead-acid starter batteries, which are ubiquitous in this day and age, are rendered obsolete, what will be done with all the lead that is currently being used in lead-acid batteries?
Lead poses a health threat to people, wildlife, and ecosystems. Therefore, it cannot easily be disposed of. The question of what will be done with the lead is one that currently has no answers. Disposing of it could entail significant risks. One way to avoid that problem is to ensure that lead continues to be used in batteries or other products in ways that secure the safety of both people and the environment. One innovative idea is to use recycled lead in long-lasting solar panels.61
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