Europe has a huge car industry who is currently taking a blind eye on their lead supply-chains. The recycling practices in Africa clearly constitute human rights violations.
Hamisi Njiru used to wear rubber gloves while smelting lead at a car battery recycling plant in Mombasa, Kenya. They only used to last a day because the acid leaking out from the batteries destroyed the material, sometimes burning his skin.
He and their colleagues used to feel dizzy by the end of every shift. Breathing became harder every day, as well as getting their wives pregnant. But they didn't know what was wrong until one of them died: he had lead poisoning.
The smelting plant, owned by the Indian company Metal Refineries EPZ Ltd, emitted toxic fumes and spilled waste water exposing not only the workers but also the local community to dangerous chemicals.
This factory, now shut down thanks to an award winning campaign lead by the activist Phyllis Omido, is just a drop in the ocean. Developing countries are a fertile ground for rampant lead recycling by melting down used batteries - also known as 'secondary smelting', a simple but profitable business.
Lead is a scarce metal, however it can be recycled an infinite number of times. This makes it possible for almost all cars to use lead-acid batteries, which account for more than the 80% of the global demand of lead. In Africa, these batteries are also used for fishing boats and the burgeoning solar and winding industry. This is why batteries are rarely discarded as waste around the world.
As environmental and green as it sounds, the recycling of used batteries may result in high lead exposures that can cause severe health effects and pollute the environment unless protective gear is used and good procedures are implemented.
Children are the most affected
Although sometimes its serious health consequences go unseen, lead is one of the most toxic metals on Earth, especially for children. Inhaled or ingested through water, food, dust or dirt, it may cause brain damage, decreased IQ, behaviour problems, reduced growth, kidney damage, digestive and reproductive problems and even death.
In 2008, at least 18 children died and many more were poisoned from lead in the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal, after exposure to contaminated dust and soil from the recovery of batteries. World Health Organization (WHO) limits are 10 micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood (ug/dl). Levels above 70 ug/dl in children are considered medical emergencies. These Senegalese kids had levels upwards of 100 ug/dl.
In every African country, tens of thousands of individuals working on the side of the road or in backyards carry out lead battery recycling, according to UN sources. Besides this widespread informal smelting, corruption has helped big companies operate in many African countries disregarding international environmental regulations.
"While the recycling of lead batteries is mostly done in a quite safe manner in industrialised economies, the conditions are alarming in developing countries such as Ghana, Cameroon, Kenya or Indonesia", warns Andreas Manhart, a researcher at the Öko-Institut.
According to the German institute, the lead exposure often reaches life threatening levels in these factories, and deadly accidents have been reported from Senegal, Kenya and Ghana.
A rarely green industry
Used lead-acid battery (ULAB) recycling is ranked as one of the most polluting industries in the world. Close to 26 million people are at risk of exposure to lead globally. With an estimated burden of disease of 9 million Disability Adjusted Life Years, or DALYs, according to Pure Earth, one of the most common sources of lead exposure in low- and middle-income countries is from ULABs.
The extraction of lead from batteries is part of a complicated cycle where the devices are sold by major firms internationally, recovered in small-scale local operations in many developing countries and often recycled back to the large manufacturers.
"The largest export of used batteries comes to Africa in used cars," explains Perry Gottesfeld, executive director of the nonprofit OK International. Some of these ULABs are shipped illegally with the wrong customs code so they cannot be tracked, but the biggest source is still the second-hand cars that go over the African roads.
These batteries' lifespans last two or three years, and then they are ready to enter the African recycling market, where big companies come often from India and China, where people are becoming increasingly aware of the challenges that this industry poses.
Finally, Western countries will buy the lead smelted in these facilities despite their not being managed in an environmentally sound manner. The European automotive industry's huge demand accounts for 80% of EU lead production. Not even recovering all batteries circulating in their countries is enough: the EU's own production of lead must be supplemented by imports, which increasingly come from Africa.
"Europe has a huge car industry that's currently taking a blind eye on their lead supply-chains. The recycling practices in Africa clearly constitute human rights violations," stressed Manhart.
The UN battle against lead
In the next few months, the ULABs are on their way to become the third - and maybe the last - step of the battle started by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) against lead.
"Leaded petrol has been more or less phased out. Leaded paint is the next challenge that we face and we are making good progress. And this - the car batteries - is the third dimension", says the deputy executive director for the UNEP, Ibrahim Thiaw.
The UN prepares to shine a light on this issue on the occasion of the second United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) to be held in Nairobi next May, to which some African countries have already submitted draft resolutions to bring the attention to the ULAB.
International NGOs and research institutes are also joining efforts to stop the lead trail and have requested the UNEP to play a role as it did with the leaded paint and petrol.
Solid solutions to the lead problem
There isn't a single collection point for car batteries in Africa. The ULAB are thrown away next to places where the children play, spoiled by the rain and the sun until someone grabs them, so setting up a collection system would be a starting point.
Many countries need support to adopt appropriate policies to deal with this dangerous waste, and this could come through taxation. If the battery costs $15, $2 more could be paid to help the government build the necessary infrastructure for collection and recovery.
In the long term, finding alternative technologies will bring the real solution. The automotive industry could switch to lithium batteries in its cars, for example - a technology already widely used in computers, mobile phones, electric vehicles and aircraft. But is yet to be determined, according to UNEP. However, a first step could be creating awareness on the magnitude of the issue.
"Governments may want to look at it", concludes Thiaw. "I don't know of any countries that would just close their eyes to their children being poisoned. I don't see any government that would just close their eyes to a phenomenon that is so acute."
Desirée García and Javier Marín are Nairobi Correspondents for the sub-Saharan African delegation of the Agencia EFE Spanish news service.
This article is published on 3rd March 2016, African Environment Day, with valuable support from the Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme operated by the European Journalism Centre.