US Exports of Used Car Batteries to Mexico Reach New and Dangerous Heights

Earlier this week Occupational Knowledge International released its latest study, and its findings are causing quite a stir.  Occupational Knowledge International is a non-governmental organization based the the United States that aims to prevent lead poisoning resulting from unsafe lead exposure.  Its most recent report is entitled “Exporting Hazards: U.S. Shipments of Used Lead Batteries to Mexico Take Advantage of Lax Environmental and Worker Health Regulations” and it was completed in cooperation with an organization based in Mexico, Fronteras Comunes.  The study, which was conducted between November 2010 and May 2011, found that businesses in the United States have more than doubled their exports of spent lead acid batteries in the last year, because recycling fees in Mexico are cheaper.  However, because of a lack of proper environmental regulation and technology, the people who work in the Mexican recycling centers and the surrounding environment is at great risk.  Occupational Knowledge International, together with Fronteras Comunes, is calling upon American businesses to cease exports of such batteries to Mexico for recycling.

Each used lead acid battery contains approximately 20 pounds of lead, sulphuric acid, and plastic.  The lead present in the batteries is especially dangerous to human health.  According to the United States Agency for Toxic Substances, lead can damage the nervous system, kidneys, and the reproductive system.  Those who are exposed to high levels of the toxin can experience severe brain damage and, ultimately, death.  The World Health Organization estimates that 120 million people are over-exposed to lead and that a shocking 99% of the most severely affected people live in developing countries.  

The study is being credited as the first to quantify the amount of batteries that is being shipped off to Mexico by American businesses.  Researchers discovered that in 2010, 236,746,892 kilograms (or over 520 million pounds) of spent lead acid batteries were sent from the United States to Mexico to be recycled.  That represents an increase of 112% over the previous year.  This huge increase is amplifying the negative effects on the people and the environment, who the ultimate victims of Mexican recycling plants’ inadequate processes and environmental legislation.  Mexican regulations allow airborne lead emissions reported by battery recycling plants to soar to levels 10 times that which is permissible by American battery recycling facilities.  Because environmental regulations in Mexico are not strongly enforced, the actual level of airborne lead emissions is recorded at a whopping twenty times the legal limit imposed by the United States government.  All of this excess exposure has serious health consequences for Mexican plant workers: their average blood lead levels are five times higher than the average American plant worker’s level.  

Perhaps the most alarming discovery made by Occupational Knowledge International and Fronteras Comunes is that less than half of the approved recycling plants in Mexico have reported their lead emissions to the RETC (the equivalent of the United State’s Toxic Release Inventory).  This implies that there are most likely many more recycling plants operating in Mexico whose practices are even more problematic:  those plants which are approved but chose not to report their numbers because they do not comply with the already overly lax regulations, and those that are in operation but are not even approved by the government.  

While it is certainly true that lead pollution problems in Mexico will not end if the United States ceases to export its used batteries, it will certainly help the situation.  Many groups feel that it is completely unconscionable for American businesses to send one more battery now that the true repercussions felt by the people of Mexico are known and the fact that American plants are adequately prepared to recycle the batteries in a much safer manner.  Marisa Jacott, director of Fronteras Comunes noted that both her organization and Occupational Knowledge International “are hopeful the the results of this report will provide the evidence needed to encourage action on behalf of both the U.S. and Mexico to better regulate these hazardous imports to our country.  For the first time, we have a thorough understanding of the scale of these exports and how it contributes to lead emissions in Mexican communities and how workers’ health is suffering because the Mexican government has failed to enact protective standards.”

Photo credit: cdc.gov/niosh/nora/symp08/photocontest.html

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