Through contact with automobiles and everyday electronics, we’re almost all familiar with the lead waste industry. Every car made today, even hybrid and electric cars, contains about 27 pounds of lead, neatly held inside the battery.
The good news is that in the United States lead recycling is nearly perfect, with 100 percent efficiency and negligible emissions to the environment. The bad news, unfortunately, is that fewer lead batteries used in the U.S. today are recycled domestically.
A recent report from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), a group composed of representatives from the three North American countries, explored the dangers of the now commonplace trade of lead batteries from the US. These risks include increased occurrence of environmental contamination and harmful human exposure.
In 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the Clean Air Act. As a result, stringent regulations of air quality and emissions for the lead battery industry followed, but so did higher maintenance costs and competition among lead smelters — facilities where the metal is produced.
Only the facilities that could comply with regulations while also crunching a profit remained intact. In 1969, there were 154 smelters in the US, but by 2011 only 14 remained. These produce a combined output of over a million tons of lead per year.
Also following the Clean Air Act, there was a dramatic increase in the export of used lead batteries from the US to 48 other countries, including Mexico. In fact, the CEC reported a 525 percent increase in net exports to Mexico between 2004 and 2011 in their report published on Nov. 30, 2011.
Currently, Mexico and most of the other countries receiving the US batteries have a lead recycling industry with fewer environmental regulations than in the US and an insufficient enforcement capacity.
Some of the smelters in developing countries are little more than an open fire for melting the batteries as up to half of the lead being recycled can be lost to the air and environment.
A system of economic disincentives persists, such that smelters that update their facilities to meet new environmental standards must pay more to maintain their production capital. This places them at a competitive disadvantage with smelters that refuse to comply to the new regulations.
“That is the crux of the issue, when you have someone that is willing to not comply with the environmental law,” Irasema Coronado, the Executive Director of the CEC, said.
What’s more concerning is that the EPA has found no records of consent from Mexico or the 47 other countries for allowing the import of used lead batteries. Yet, estimates show that 18 percent of US lead batteries are being recycled in Mexico, and that up to 60 percent of used lead batteries in Mexico came from the US. The CEC is concerned about whether the exchange of lead batteries is from cooperation or exploitation.
When standards at the smelters slip, the consequences can be great. Environmental lead contamination occurs in several ways; it is released from smokestacks, can travel through water and solids in run-off from industry sites, and may spread in fugitive dust from handling and shipping. Workers often bring lead home with them on their clothes, inadvertently exposing their family and neighbors to lead. Because elemental lead does not decay, it can remain in soil for hundreds to thousands of years.
Lead exposure can result in neurobehavioral problems like Attention Deficit Disorder and decreased IQ, as well as heart, kidney and immune system damage. In severe cases, lead exposure can be fatal. The effects of these conditions are worst among children.
In 1999, investigators testing lead levels in the soil near a Mexican lead smelter found that 25 percent of children in an adjacent community had dangerously high amounts of lead in their blood. Though government agencies have since intervened and exposure levels have been reduced, the levels are still five times higher than in the U.S.
The CEC has brought attention to the immense amount of U.S. lead battery exports to foreign facilities that may be operating under sub-par conditions, but the next move belongs to the governments of the United States, Canada and Mexico. Coronado expressed hope that the three countries will cooperate to address the issue.
“What this report has done is raise awareness among the citizens of North America,” Coronado said, explaining that the lead battery industry involves anyone who has used a car, a computer, or a cell phone. “All of us own this problem.”