Soil contamination around lead battery plants found in seven African countries

Lead has been found at up to 65 times the naturally occurring level in soil near lead battery manufacturing and recycling plants in seven African countries, according to a January 18 report.

Soil Contamination from Lead Battery Manufacturing and Recycling in Seven African Countries was co-authored by Perry Gottesfeld, executive director the US-based NGO Occupational Knowledge International, which develops strategies to reduce exposure to industrial pollutants.

The countries named were Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania and Tunisia, and the report, which was published in the journal Environmental Research, said many of the plants in these countries were situated near local communities and schools.

“We collected 118 soil samples at 15 recycling plants and one battery manufacturing site and analyzed them for total lead,” the report abstract said. “Lead levels in soils ranged from <40-140,000 mg/kg. Overall mean lead concentrations were ~23,200 mg/kg but average lead levels were 22-fold greater for soil samples from inside plant sites than from those collected outside these facilities.

“Lead concentrations in soil samples from communities surrounding these plants were ~2600 mg/kg.”

According to the Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, lead occurs naturally in soil at 15mg/kg-40mg/kg – which means some of the soil tested in these countries had a more than 65 times greater concentration.

Andreas Manhart, senior researcher, sustainable products and material flows with the Oeko Insitut, a European research and consultancy organization, said lead-acid battery recycling was “hugely problematic in many developing countries and emerging economies”.

“Although there are a number of modern and more-or-less responsible facilities operating in developing countries — I saw a quite positive example in Nigeria in November — these companies are economically beaten by poorly performing smelters who do not care much about health and safety or the environment.

“Labour is cheap and widely abundant in many developing countries and those poorly performing countries willingly accept that workers drop out for health reasons. And if sick workers seek medical treatment on their own – many smelters have no medical check-ups or blood-lead tests — they are hardly ever tested for lead poisoning, simply because the symptoms are taken for Malaria or any other infectious disease.”

Manhart says that small-scale and backyard recycling is also an issue: in many countries the whole collection system is widely informal and the acid drained somewhere on the way to a facility (without any treatment). Battery breaking is also very common in informal sectors and battery repair and refurbishing is also still widespread in developing countries. Such practices are sometimes coupled with small-scale artisanal smelters.

In December, the UN Environmental Assembly meeting in Nairobi made a resolution to combat backyard recycling in Africa, which included measures to encourage the sound management of waste lead acid batteries. (More here.)

“As the lead battery industry in Africa continues to expand, it is expected that the number and size of lead battery recycling plants will grow to meet the forecast demand,” the Occupational Knowledge International report said.

“There is an immediate need to address exposures in surrounding communities, emissions from this industry and to regulate site closure financing procedures to ensure that we do not leave behind a legacy of lead contamination that will impact millions in communities throughout Africa.”