Five Steps to Protect Our Children from Toxic Lead Sites

Children in Asia and the Pacific have faced some of the most serious impacts from lead poisoning. Photo: Lucas Metz
Children in Asia and the Pacific have faced some of the most serious impacts from lead poisoning. Photo: Lucas Metz

By Albert Park, Rhea Molato Gayares, James G. Baker

Safety standards in recycling lead in automotive batteries in Asia and the Pacific must be observed to prevent lead from polluting the environment and poisoning children.

Lead exposure stunts brain development, especially at younger ages, and can also increase aggressive behavior among children and adolescents. Lead exposure also increases the risk of diseases of the blood, heart, kidneys, and nervous system, and can even cause death.

 About 50% of children in low- and lower-middle income countries have elevated levels of lead in their blood compared to only 2% of children in high-income countries. If blood lead levels in developing countries could be lowered to the same level as in developed countries—a tenfold decline in average blood lead level—it is estimated that the large gap between learning levels in rich and developing countries would narrow by 20%.

Banning lead from gasoline and paint has made huge contributions to reducing children’s exposure to lead. But there are still many other sources of lead exposure in developing countries, including in spices, cookware, ceramics, and cosmetics.

The greatest use of lead today is for lead-acid batteries, mainly for automobiles. Most of the global demand for lead-acid batteries is being met by recycled lead from used lead-acid batteries.

Recycling used lead-acid batteries is very profitable, given the growing demand for automobiles. Recycling costs are typically lower in informal used lead-acid battery recycling operations that are commonly found on the outskirts of cities in developing countries, where there is poor regulation of safety standards.

Unfortunately,  substandard recycling processes release huge volumes of lead particles into the environment, contaminating the air, water, and land and exposing nearby populations including children to lead poisoning. 

Safeguarding the future from lead poisoning hinges on a collective commitment to enhanced safety protocols, responsible manufacturing, and informed consumerism.

How can we make used lead-acid battery recycling safe? Here are five key steps:

First, everyone needs to know their risk of lead exposure. Public information campaigns can inform communities near used lead-acid batteries recyclers and smelters of the activities and the risks to which they are exposed. Workers and owners of used lead-acid batteries recycling sites must be informed of hazards of the job and the measures they can take to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from the harmful effects of lead exposure.

Second, safety standards for used lead-acid battery recycling must be enforced. Operating standards must specify engineering, emissions, and occupational safety controls. Such controls include environmentally-sound furnace technologies, contained smelting operations, emission limits, and the treatment of hazardous wastes.

Workers must be protected by personal protective equipment, limits to potential exposure to lead, and regular monitoring of blood lead levels. A public certificate of compliance can signal that a product and its producer adhere to these standards.

Third,  recycling responsibility must be internalized by lead-acid battery manufacturers. For example, the “take-back obligation” of manufacturers in the United Kingdom makes them responsible for the collection of used batteries and ensuring that those batteries go into certified recyclers who comply with safety standards.

Similarly, in Brazil’s “reverse logistics” system, at every stage of the supply chain used batteries are exchanged for new batteries and manufacturers are required to contract only certified smelters to recycle used batteries.

Fourth, informed consumers can make purchase decisions that influence battery manufacturers’ compliance with safety standards. For example, consumers who care about the public harm of lead poisoning can decide to buy only batteries that carry a safety seal which signifies that the product adheres to safety standards at every stage of the supply chain. The integrity of such seals must be guaranteed by inspection and verification systems.

Fifth, it is important to strengthen capacity to enforce standards and remediate contaminated sites. The administrative capacity of implementing agencies must be supported, and financial incentives and penalties should be used to promote compliance. Technical assistance may be provided for capacity building as well as for cleaning up lead-contaminated sites.

 Safeguarding the future from lead poisoning hinges on a collective commitment to enhanced safety protocols, responsible manufacturing, and informed consumerism. By embracing these critical measures, we can protect children's health, bridge learning divides, and foster sustainable development.