Spent U.S. Batteries May Be Poisoning Mexican Children, Workers

Old batteries recycled by Americans may be putting the health of children in Mexico at risk. According to a report from The New York Times, once they are recycled in Mexico, lead is extracted from those batteries in a process that exposes plant workers and local residents to dangerous levels of the toxic metal.

About 20 percent of spent American vehicle and industrial batteries are now exported to Mexico, up from 6 percent in 2007, the Times said. According to U.S. trade statistics, about 20 million such batteries will cross the border this year. The traffic in old lead batteries is increasing because strict lead regulations in the U.S. make recycling them here difficult and expensive. Meanwhile, the demand for lead, once cheap and readily available but now in short global supply, has skyrocketed, the Times said.

The U.S. rules require that lead battery recyclers operate in sealed, highly mechanized plants where smokestacks are fitted with scrubbers and the perimeters monitored by lead detection devices. But in Mexico, plant workers manually dismantle batteries with hammers, and the lead they contain is melted down in smelters. Smokestacks vent lead-tainted smoke into surrounding communities.

Thirty miles from Mexico City, in Naucalpan de Juarez, one such facility operated by Industrial Mondelo may be taking a terrible toll on the surrounding community, according to the Times. The town’s elementary school is on the same block as the recycling plant. Though it recently moved the bulk of its operations to a larger facility elsewhere, the Times pointed out that lead can contaminate soil 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 U.S., the playground would be deemed a significant hazard and require immediate remediation.

Perry Gottesfeld, executive director of the nonprofit organization, Occupational Knowledge International (OK International), was the primary source for the New York Times expose, according to a press release issued by the group. The Times’ report was based on an investigation conducted by OK International that documented, for the first time, the significant increases in U.S. battery exports to Mexico and the hazards these exports pose. The group’s investigation is summarized in a report entitled “Exporting Hazards: U.S. Shipments of Used Lead Batteries to Mexico Take Advantage of Lax Environmental and Worker Health Regulations.”

“Our investigation revealed that used car batteries from the U.S. are contributing to higher lead emissions in Mexico due to shoddy recycling practices,” Gottsfield said. “There are blatant deficiencies in regulations and environmental protections in the Mexican recycling industry compared to U.S. standards.”

While Mexico does have some regulation for smelting and recycling lead, the laws are poorly enforced, experts said.

“If we export, we should only be sending batteries to countries with standards as strict as ours, and in Mexico that is not the case,” Gottesfeld told the Times.

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