Wilson wins International Lead Award at 15ELBC in Malta

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For the record, the International Lead Award was presented to David Wilson, long-time head of the International Lead Association, on the opening morning of the 15th European Lead Battery Conference on September 14. It was a highly popular choice — Wilson has been a well known fixture in the lead industry for over a generation. This will be his last conference before his retirement.

In his acceptance speech Wilson said: “40 years in the industry may sound a long time, but it hasn’t felt it! I joined LDA (as it was then called) in London in the hot UK summer of 1976 with no particular expectations — and with virtually no knowledge of lead.

“I certainly didn’t expect to stay for a working lifetime, but when a job is interesting and enjoyable, and when you make many good friends both in the office and in countries around the world, the years do tend to slip away and before you know it, the time has come to retire.”

Wilson, speaking to Batteries International after the event, said that for almost the whole of his career the lead industry had been under threat. “It’s come from a variety of directions but there has always seemed to be something hanging over the business.

“When I joined the industry, total lead use amounted to about 3.5 million tonnes a year. There were quite a number of important uses — batteries were of course one, but there were also lead sheaths for power cables, solders for electrical connections and food cans, lead pipes and lead roofing for use in buildings, lead weights, and of course lead additives for gasoline. At the time some 43% of the lead (about 1.5 million tonnes) was used in batteries, and everyone said that the battery market might have another 10 years to run at best — and they had already been saying that for many years before I became involved.

“In practice it was most of those other uses that gradually declined, some because of alternative products becoming available, some because of legislative restrictions, and it is the lead battery that has survived and become more and more important so that in 2015 batteries accounted for almost 90% of lead use — a staggering 10 million tonnes. And still growing!

“Yes, there are threats to this market from competing battery chemistries, but I have a feeling — and certainly a hope — that, just like the predictions I heard 40 years ago, the warnings that the end of the lead battery is approaching may well be premature.”

Part of Wilson’s achievements over the years has been spent in seemingly endless and complex negotiations over the regulation of lead.

“The subject of legislation is one which dominated my work for many years — indeed it continues to be a preoccupation today for the current ILA team. Over the years, a quite disproportionate amount of time has had to be spent in resisting the attempts by NGOs, governments and intergovernmental organizations which wanted to ban particular uses of lead, or even all uses of lead. It has been quite surprising — and amazingly frustrating — to work over long periods with these bodies and (at least sometimes) arrive at practical solutions to the management of lead products, only to see a near-identical proposal pop up shortly afterwards under the aegis of another similar body!

“I have often wondered whether this was in practice a coordinated effort to eliminate lead completely from the range of materials available to industry — but if it was, it has certainly not succeeded as the strength of the battery industry clearly shows.

“Moreover, the regulatory challenges are often misguided or come from bodies that don’t understand the industry and our huge contributions — voluntary contributions in many ways, just think about the way we’ve been ahead of everyone in tackling subjects like lead levels in blood — to worker safety and the environment. I could accept free and fair competition between other chemistries but the playing field we’re on isn’t fair.”

Wilson said that in a sense it was a relief not to be spending additional years on the struggle. “For many people job satisfaction occurs when a goal is achieved but the endless negotiations are wearing as, as soon as one regulatory initiative has been moderated or blocked, another one appears. There’s no clear end to give you the satisfaction of a job accomplished.

“I’ve always loved, for example, the closing night of a conference when everything has been done and you can step back and have a momentary break. The task is over.”

Delegate reaction to his appointment was enthusiastic — Wilson has been a popular figure in the industry since the early days of the ELBC and many were sad to hear that he was stepping down from the industry. “He’s probably deserved that medal several times over,” one delegate told Batteries International.

“With some people their achievements are immediately obvious, but with David it’s been his persistence — I can’t imagine the number of endless meetings he must have attended — and willingness to go the extra mile that has helped the lead industry to thrive through some very difficult times.

“He’s going to be solely missed.”

Wilson, now 65 says it’s a perfect time to retire. I tried to retire five years ago,” he says. “When I stepped down as head of the ILA. But I was almost immediately needed for other work. But don’t worry I’m not planning a come-back, though of course I don’t expect my lifetime associations with my friends in the industry to cease with my retirement.”

Wilson says that over the last couple of years he had gradually been working shorter weeks in anticipation of his departure.

And his plans for the future? “Well five years ago I was half serious in cultivating roses but there are still plenty of things to do.”

He and his wife Olwen — they met at Nottingham University when he was studying for his doctorate — have just bought a house outside of Guildford and he anticipates the next few months after the conference will be spent in finishing the move.

Highlights of David Wilson’s career

LDA became alarmingly dependent on funding by UK lead producers, despite representing the whole European industry in Brussels. Wilson oversaw a change of name to Lead Development Association International — LDAI —and an expansion of membership to include almost all European lead producers.

Around this time LDAI, along with the industry’s research body — the International Lead Zinc Research Organization (ILZRO), also took on the role of coordinating and representing the global lead industry in dealings with several intergovernmental organizations which were attempting to introduce widespread restrictions on the use of lead.

These included the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which was pursuing a “sunset chemicals” programme and thought the world could cope without any lead use, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) (which included the US and Canada despite its name) which wanted to ban certain chemicals including lead, and the United Nations Environment Program, which wanted to phase out all uses of lead, cadmium and mercury.

By 2000, the number of initiatives to restrict the use of lead in Europe had become so great and so time-consuming for the Association, that a solution was needed that would address all the issues simultaneously. As a result it was decided to launch a Voluntary Risk Assessment of Lead, which could stand as a single reference point for all such initiatives.

Funded by both producers and users of lead, the Risk Assessment took a number of years to complete but served its purpose well and was a significant factor in reducing the pressures on lead. It also formed the basis for later legal requirements under the EU REACH Directive.

In 2004, the lead industry faced the loss of its research body, ILZRO, due to reorganization of the zinc industry, and LDAI was asked to take over responsibility for management of ILZRO’s lead activities.

Wilson thus found himself with two organisations to manage from two offices in two countries, the UK and the USA. ILZRO and its battery organisation, the Advanced Lead Acid Battery Consortium, thus came under LDAI’s management.

With LDAI’s role and activities becoming increasingly global, and the association coming into closer contact with lead producers in all parts of the world, it seemed appropriate to reflect this in the name, remit and membership of the organisation. In 2008, Wilson oversaw the transition of LDAI into the International Lead Association, with a greatly expanded membership and a new structure for managing its wide range of activities.

 

1972 — BSc in Chemistry from the University of Nottingham, UK.

1975 — PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of Nottingham.

1975-1976 — Spent a year as an editor of the Faraday Transactions of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

August 1976 — joined the Lead Development Association in London to work on technical, analytical and environmental aspects of lead.

1979-1987 — worked on parallel issues concerning cadmium for the Cadmium Association.

1987 — appointed Marketing Director of the Lead Development Association.

1990 — becomes director of the LDA.

1996 and beyond — During the 1990s the LDA became alarmingly dependent on funding