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Lead from recycled U.S. batteries polluting Mexico

Lead from recycled U.S. batteries polluting Mexico

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A global shortage of lead has transformed some Mexican towns into recycling centers for batteries disposed in the U.S. Workers extract the lead without any protection, and environmental safeguards are non-existant.

Lead is in such high demand that Mexican workers recycle it from used batteries imported from the U.S. without any protections. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

The expense of recycling batteries in the United States coupled with a global shortage of lead has created a booming disposal business south of the boarder where labor is inexpensive and environmental rules are lax.

Newly revised Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for lead pollution has sparked a dramatic outsourcing of battery recycling to Mexico, the New York Times reports. Workers from impoverished communities risk lead exposure to do the job and endanger local health.

In the U.S., battery recycling takes place in automated plants under cleanroom like conditions; scrubbers capture toxic emissions. In Mexico lead is often extracted using hammers and is melted down without any safeguards against air pollution.

Lead causes acute developmental problems in children and can sicken adults. Here’s some information from the EPA, which cannot regulate what happens in Mexico.

The proportion of used automotive batteries shipped from the U.S. to Mexico have skyrocketed from 6 percent in 2007 to around 20 percent today, the Times reports. Some of the batteries arrive through the black market.

This is a classic case of the good intentions of U.S. citizens and government workers going awry. Concerns for the environment and environmental discrimination make it too expensive for some of this work to happen stateside

Less reputable recyclers often locate high-risk operations in low-income areas overseas. Toxic waste disposed from unwanted products in the U.S. often ends up in landfills overseas. China is a top destination for electronic waste.

I investigated e-waste for Technologizer several years ago, and found that tech trash that was supposed to be recycled was traced to international shipping containers. Where there’s demand - there’s supply, and Americans throw out 3 million tons of e-waste every year.

It is not uncommon for local officials to look the other way, because electronic waste becomes a valuable source of income and a criminal element is involved. CBS’s 60 Minutes has a very informative report online called “The Electronic Wasteland.”

E-waste from consumer electronics and PCs can include cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, and PVCs. When bad actors are involved, nothing is done to protect the people (frequently children) who process it.

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David Worthington

Contributing Editor

David Worthington has written for BetaNews, eWeek, PC World, Technologizer and ZDNet. Formerly, he was a senior editor at SD Times. He holds a business degree from Temple University. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure