March 14, 2019: A pilot programme to train backyard battery recyclers and assemblers is being launched in India’s poorest state of Bihar by the Pure Earth, formerly known as the Blacksmith Institute. Pure Earth is an international non-profit organization that cleans up pollution problems in lower income countries, especially where it can have devastating impacts on health.
Promila Sharma, the South Asia co-ordinator for the institute, told BESB that up to 50% of India’s secondary lead was believed to come from a second-tier industry of backyard recyclers. These sell their produce to street-corner battery manufacturers and assemblers, who in turn sell their products on for cash.
Instead of levying huge fines and prison sentences on those responsible, Sharma said state governors had agreed to allow the institute to try a programme of education, where the small units were encouraged to upgrade their systems and equipment to standards that were acceptable to the industry at large.
“Our focus is on public health,” Sharma told BESB. “We went on a reconnaissance mission to Bihar, where we found many sites, and at one such place we found kids in school next to a small recycling unit.
“We tested children under 10 years old and on average, their blood measured 30mcg/dl. The safe level is just 5mcg. But they’re not aware of these health issues, and with our partners in industry and government we are trying to figure out how to solve it.
“One solution is to encourage and persuade them to get into the mainstream, to do it the right way. So we are going to do an experiment in Bihar.
“We are going to collectivize a group of up to 25 informal recyclers and try to help them build the capacity and qualifications to do it properly, maybe joining forces to become bigger organizations but with universally accepted standards.
“The project will look at developing medium and small size units and provide them with money to develop a small industry — we will hold their hand and try to showcase this as an experiment.”
Sharma says the idea has been well received, and while the national government has not supported it with cash, it is allowing it to go ahead.
Sharma said the institute had secured funding to send teams of investigators around the country to identify and report back on contaminated sites and informal recyclers.
“We estimate that there are more than 200 sites contaminated with lead, which means 40 million people could be exposed to this,” she said. “And although we haven’t covered the entire country yet, we have found that Bihar has the worst case scenario.”
The institute is also collecting data to compile an index of sites identified as contaminated, Sharma said. Between 2009 and 2011, they had identified more than 350 sites that were contaminated with a variety of heavy metals.
“At more than 100 of those sites the government had to make an intervention to save lives,” she said. “The government took notice from 2012 onwards and they are working on getting those sites cleaned up.”