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.
Photo Credit: Barnaby