Recycled Battery Lead Puts Mexicans In Danger
(NYTimes) 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.
The rising flow of batteries is a result of strict new Environmental Protection Agency 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.
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, often in dilapidated neighborhoods like the one here, 30 miles northwest of Mexico City.
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, and that does not take into account batteries smuggled in as mislabeled metal scrap or second-hand goods. In September, more than 60 18-wheelers full of old batteries crossed the border each day, trade records show.
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.
(Image courtesy of Conservative New Jersey)
But for much of the past decade, at the vast recycling compound of Industrial Mondelo here, batteries have been 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. Officials of the plant, which has been given more than a dozen citations and fines for lead emissions and improper storage of dangerous materials, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
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.
The E.P.A. declined to speak publicly on the export trade, instead explaining in a statement that its role was “limited to processing” the paperwork for the new battery tracking system.
Many people familiar with the industry said more needed to be done.
“We’re shipping hazardous waste to a neighbor ill equipped to process it and we’re doing it legally, turning our heads, and pretending it’s not a problem,” said Robert Finn, chief executive of RSR, a Dallas-based lead recycler that operates solely in the United States, and is concerned about the loss of raw materials to Mexico.
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