Lead From Old U.S. Batteries Causing Health Hazards In Mexico

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.

But in many areas of Mexico, batteries are being dismantled by men wielding hammers, and their lead melted in furnaces whose smokestacks vent to the air outside, where lead particles can settle everywhere from schoolyards to food carts.
Mexican environmental officials acknowledge that they lack the money, manpower and technical capacity to police a fast-growing industry now operating in many parts of the country.

Children At Serious Risk Of Lead Exposure

From The New York Times:

The recycling factory has put a neighborhood of children at serious risk of lead exposure, said Marisa Jacott, director of Fronteras Comunes, an environmental group in Mexico City. Ms. Jacott wants to test young residents living near the plant but lacks the money to do so. The town’s elementary school is on the same block as the recycling plant, which recently moved the bulk of its operations to a larger facility elsewhere. Lead pollution remains in the ground for decades.

A sample of soil collected by The Times in the schoolyard showed a lead level of 2,000 parts per million, five times the limit for children’s play areas in the United States set by the Environmental Protection Agency. In most states, that would rate as a “significant environmental lead hazard” and require immediate remediation, like covering the area with concrete or disposing of the soil.

Exposure to lead can affect the natural development of kids and cause severe developmental disabilities, and now, as a result of this illegal exporting, the very ground in which Mexican children are playing is contaminated.

Take Action Now

But it doesn’t have to be like this. The U.S. government could require that Mexican factories processing used batteries from the United States meet U.S. environmental standards and undergo inspections. The Food and Drug Administration inspects foreign factories that make drugs imported into the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency could take on a similar role for battery recycling plants.

Click here to sign our petition asking the Environmental Protection Agency to require that Mexican factories processing used batteries from the United States meet the U.S. environmental standards and undergo inspections.

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Photo Credit: Barnaby

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Duane B.
.2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

David Moffatt
David Moffatt3 years ago

This is not a new problem, nor is it limited to Mexico. Taiwan used to be a major center for lead-acid battery recycling, which was done without any environmental regulation.

This article focuses on lead and does not discuss the sulfuric acid which is present in every lead-acid battery. This too is a toxin and when combined with any heavy metal or a variety of other innocuous substances in the environment, forms toxic sulphates. To my knowledge, the acid in batteries in not recycled. I do not know whether it is disposed of in a safe manner.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener3 years ago


Sarah Metcalf
Sarah M.3 years ago

Just one of many things the U.S. does to ruin Mexico...terrible!

Andrea Connelly
Andrea Connelly3 years ago

Bravo Amie K. You said it! There is no us and them! This planet is ours which we can save together or destroy together. We are all in this TOGETHER. It should be a NO BRAINER, so why is it that people don't get it?

Lara Kinast
Lara Kinast3 years ago

I am all for technologies that allow us to recharge batteries. The policies need to be tougher. A human life, just one, is precious. And really, nobody NEEDS anything that runs on batteries. Cell phones, video games, cameras, cars... they are "convenient" but if every person, or even the majority of consumers, were committed to change, we could do it.

Will Rogers
Will Rogers3 years ago

I hear that the energy used to make a 1.5 volt battery is thousands of times more than what we get from it! What a waste! And that disposable batteries are probably the least efficient form of energy ever! So why do they make them?
Car batteries though are recyclable, and should be recycled, as to why the U.S are sending it to Mexico? Could it because they despise and look down on their southern neighbours? Regarding them as hired help and servants and la cucaracha'. .. I don't know, but it's how I see them portrayed in the American media.

Lilithe Magdalene

Control over every corporate money making BS scheme needs to be regulated better! Darnit - I just dropped off a 6 month supply of batteries to be recycled - and this is where they are going? Just when you thing you are doing a good thing...

I swear the next disability check is going toward rechargeables and a better recharger.

Doyle Osburn
Doyle Osburn3 years ago

signed it...I think all batteries need to be recycled and any store that sells them should have to collect used batteries for recycling not just car batteries.

Valarie Snell
Valarie Snell3 years ago

well said Isabel A