Going green for many Americans means recycling. Isn’t that doing good for the planet? Done well, recycling batteries is certainly environmentally responsible, since lead mining and processing cause far greater emissions of carbon dioxide than extracting lead from old car batteries for re-use.
But the spent batteries Americans turn in for recycling are increasingly being sent to Mexico, where their lead is often extracted by crude methods that are illegal in the United States, exposing plant workers and local residents to dangerous levels of a toxic metal.
Why Are Old U.S. Batteries Ending Up In Mexico?
The rising flow of batteries is a result of strict new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards on lead pollution, which make domestic recycling more difficult and expensive, but do not prohibit companies from exporting the work and the danger to countries where standards are low and enforcement is lax.
Batteries are imported through official channels or smuggled in to satisfy a growing demand for lead, once cheap and readily available but now in short global supply. Lead batteries are crucial to cellphone networks, solar power arrays and the exploding Chinese car market, and the demand for lead has increased as much as tenfold in a decade.
An analysis of trade statistics by The New York Times shows that about 20 percent of spent American vehicle and industrial batteries are now exported to Mexico, up from 6 percent in 2007. About 20 million such batteries will cross the border this year, according to United States trade statistics.
Lead Can Cause Serious Developmental Delays In Young Children
Spent batteries house up to 40 pounds of lead, which can cause high blood pressure, kidney damage and abdominal pain in adults, and serious developmental delays and behavioral problems in young children because it interferes with neurological development. When batteries are broken for recycling, the lead is released as dust and, during melting, as lead-laced emissions.
Lead battery recyclers in the United States now operate in sealed, highly mechanized plants — like labs working with dangerous germs. Their smokestacks are fitted with scrubbers, and their perimeters are surrounded by lead-monitoring devices.
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