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Lead Poisoning From Battery Industry Reported In Developing Countries

August 15, 2011

Higher levels of lead found in children living near battery facilities

Documenting the hazards of lead battery manufacturing and recycling operations in emerging markets, a study in the September issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene reports that children living near these facilities in developing countries had approximately 13 times more lead in their blood than American children.

The researchers, using data from studies published between 1993 and 2010 on environmental and occupational exposures from lead battery manufacturing and recycling in developing countries, also found:

    * Workers in this industry in developing countries had approximately three times higher blood lead levels than battery workers in the U.S.
    * Lead levels in the air inside lead battery plants in developing countries were seven times greater than the levels permitted by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Children and workers in developing countries face significant risks of lead poisoning, which can cause lifelong health problems,” said Perry Gottesfeld, executive director of Occupational Knowledge International (OK International) and author of the study. “Without major improvements, we expect that lead poisoning cases will continue to increase as the industry grows.”

The study’s release comes on the heels of reports of a large number of mass lead poisoning incidents around lead battery recycling and manufacturing plants in China and the Aug. 2 announcement that the country recently closed 583 of these facilities.

The battery industry is the largest consumer of lead, using approximately 80% of the global lead production. Lead battery manufacturing is growing rapidly in much of the world to meet demand for batteries in cars, motorcycles, electric vehicles, solar power systems, cellular phones and for back-up power supplies. In many developing countries, the lead battery industry is expected to nearly double in size in the next five to 10 years.

“At the exposure levels observed, developing countries are losing billions of dollars as a result of reduced school performance, loss of productivity and increased medical costs,” said Gottesfeld. “Given the lack of regulatory and enforcement capacity in most developing countries, third party certification programs may be the only viable option to improve conditions, protect human health and strengthen these nations’ economies.”

Although the report found some modest improvement over the study period, these gains were not statistically significant. The average exposures observed are significantly higher than the levels at which health effects have been identified in both children and adults.

Lead poisoning is one of the most serious environmental health threats to children and is a significant contributor to occupational disease. The World Health Organization estimates that 120 million people are over-exposed to lead (approximately three times the number infected by HIV/AIDS) and 99% of the most severely affected are in the developing world.

Lead poisoning causes numerous adverse health effects, including damage to the central nervous system, the kidneys, the cardiovascular system and the reproductive system. In children, blood lead concentration is associated with learning impairments, as well as hyperactive and violent behavior.

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