10th Worst Pollutant…Used Lead Acid Battery Recycling


Lead acid batteries are rechargeable batteries made
of lead plates situated in a ‘bath’ of sulfuric acid within a
plastic casing. They are used in every country in world,
and can commonly be recognized as “car batteries”.
The batteries can be charged many times, but after
numerous cycles of recharging, lead plates eventually
deteriorate causing the battery to lose its ability to hold
stored energy for any period of time.1 Once the lead
acid battery ceases to be effective, it is unusable and
deemed a used lead acid battery (ULAB), which is classified
as a hazardous waste under the Basel Convention.
Recycled lead is a valuable commodity and for many
people in the developing world the recovery of car and
similar batteries (ULABs) can be a viable and profitable
business. Therefore, the market for reclaiming secondary
lead has been growing, especially in developing
countries. Many developing countries have entered the
business of buying ULABs in bulk in order to recycle
them for lead recovery. These ULABs are often shipped
over long distances for recycling, typically from the

industrialized countries that produce, use, and then
collect the spent batteries for reprocessing.3 Currently
ULAB recycling occurs in almost every city in the developing
world, and even in some countries in rapid transition.
ULAB recycling and smelting operations are often
located in densely populated urban areas with few (if
any) pollution controls. In many cases the local recycling
operations are not managed in an environmentally
sound manner and release lead contaminated waste
into the local environment and eco systems in critical
quantities. Blacksmith Institute estimates that over 12
million people are affected by lead contamination from
processing of Used Lead Acid Batteries throughout the
developing world.

As urban centers in the Global South become more
populated the confluence of high unemployment rates,
with increased car ownership, have led to a proliferation
of informal ULAB reconditioning and recovery
activities. These are often conducted by economically
marginalized members of society, needing an additional
source of income, but without any understanding of
the risks involved. The informal process of recovering
secondary lead from the ULABs includes breaking the
batteries manually with an axe. In many cases, informal
battery melting is a subsistence activity, and undertaken
in homes (even in the kitchen), using archaic melting operations to recover and sell the secondary
lead to the larger processers. Despite efforts by government
agencies and the industry to bring safer and
more efficient practices into this stage of the recycling
process, ignorance of the risks of lead contamination
combined with a lack of viable economic alternatives
has led to the systemic poisoning of many poor populations
throughout the developing world.
About 6 million tons of lead is used annually, on a worldwide
basis, of which roughly three-quarters goes into
the production of lead-acid batteries, which are used
in automobiles, industry and a wide range of other
applications. Much of this existing demand for lead is
met through the recycling of secondary material4 and
in particular from lead recovered from Used Lead-Acid
Batteries (ULAB). This high level of recycling is very
effective in reducing the volumes of lead dumped in
the environment and in minimizing the need for mining
more ores. However, in many places, much of the
recycling is done on an informal basis, in unhygienic
and dangerous conditions and resulting in serious lead
poisoning of the recyclers themselves and the neighboring
Exposure Pathways
Throughout the informal recycling process, there are
opportunities for exposure. Most often the battery
acid, which contains lead particulates, is haphazardly
dumped on the ground, waste pile or into the nearest
water body. As the lead plates are melted, lead ash
falls into the surrounding environment, collects on
clothing, or is directly inhaled by people in close proximity.
Soil containing lead compounds can turn to dust and
become airborne, enabling the lead compounds to be
easily inhaled or ingested in a variety of ways. Lead can
also leach into water supplies.
Children, in particular are often exposed to lead when
playing on the waste furnace slag and handling rocks
or dirt containing lead, while engaging in typical handto-
mouth activity, as well as by bringing objects covered
with lead dust back into the home. The most common
route of exposure for children is ingestion, as lead dust
often covers clothing, food, soil and toys.
Health Effects
Acute lead poisoning can occur when people are
directly exposed to large amounts of lead through inhal-

ing dust, fumes or vapors dispersed in the air.
However, chronic poisoning from absorbing low
amounts of lead over long periods of time is a much
more common and pervasive problem. Lead can enter
the body through the lungs or the mouth, and over long
periods can accumulate in the bones.
Health risks include impaired physical growth, kidney
damage, retardation, and in extreme cases even death.
Lead poisoning can lead to tiredness, headache, aching
bones and muscles, forgetfulness, loss of appetite and
sleep disturbance. This is often followed by constipation
and attacks of intense pain in the abdomen, called
lead colic.5 Extreme cases of lead poisoning, can cause
convulsions, coma, delirium and possibly death.
Children are more susceptible to lead poisoning than
adults and may suffer permanent neurological damage.
Women that are pregnant and become exposed
to lead can result in damage to the fetus and birth
Some sites which have been noted as examples of
the problem
Thiaroye Sur Mer, Dakar, Senegal
Bajos de Haina, Dominican Republic
Picnic Garden, Kolkata, India
What is Being Done
The challenges of ULABs are recognized by the industry
and by the Basel Secretariat, who administers the
relevant Convention. In some countries, the recycling
systems have become formalized and are more or less
well regulated. However, in many poorer countries,
there is a large informal component alongside the
established, larger recyclers. The Blacksmith Institute
is currently trying to mitigate lead pollution from ULABs
in seven countries around the world with a project entitled,
“The Initiative for Responsible Battery Recycling”.
The project focuses on ending endemic exposure to
lead from improper ULAB recycling through education,
remediation of legacy contaminated soils, developing
new responsible policies on appropriate management
of ULAB, and either formalizing the ULAB collection or
providing other sources of income for the informal sector

Battery Optimization Equipment will soon be available in South Africa.

Number three being Groundwater Contamination

Source…Blacksmith Institute in partnership with Green Cross
Switzerland with input and review from a number of experts and volunteers, to whom we are most grateful.