The lead battery industry has been praised for ramping up efforts to tackle rogue recyclers— whose illegitimate activities have been linked to rising death rates in nearly 60 countries.
The president of non-profit organisation Pure Earth, Richard Fuller, told the International Lead Association’s (ILA) Pb2019 conference in Madrid “informal recyclers” were a threat to human health and posed reputational risks for the legitimate lead industry.
Fuller said he welcomed a renewed effort by the ILA and battery manufacturers to encourage responsible recycling and sourcing.
“We think this industry response is a proactive and positive way to tackle the problem,” Fuller said. “Make sure your supply chains are as tight as they can be.”
However, Fuller was challenged by Pb2019 delegates after he previewed alarming research data he said would be released within the next six months. According to Fuller, figures from 2017 indicated that lead was attributed to one million premature deaths worldwide from cardiovascular disease caused by hypertension. “That’s more deaths than AIDS, malaria, drugs and alcohol”.
New research would also confirm that “around 30% of children on the planet are contaminated with lead poisoning”, Fuller said.
According to Fuller, one recent study indicated that around 450 million children had more than 10 micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood (μg/dL), while 680 million children had more than 5μg/dL.
“The new research that I am already privy to shows an even bleaker picture than this.” None of the existing data considers the “hotspots”, such as informal battery recycling facilities and the children living around them, Fuller claimed. “This is because the data is based only on control group studies.”
Fuller said 56 countries had seen increased death rates linked to lead, even after leaded fuel was banned. “Batteries are well recycled in rich countries and not so in others,” he added.
He said research showed a large percentage of batteries are still recycled informally in countries such as in India (more than 50%). Informal recycling spreads lead dust in residential areas, Fuller said. But he warned that strict enforcement “without changing economic incentives may increase the problem”. Informal recyclers “just move, creating more toxic hotspots”, he said.
China, India and Bangladesh were among ‘problem’ regions highlighted by Fuller.
“Informal battery recyclers should be forced to clean up their act and join the regulated sector or go out of business and do something else,” he added.