Used Lead Acid Batteries

Used Lead Acid Batteries



Lead acid batteries are rehargeable batteries made of lead plates in a ‘bath’ of sulfuric acid within a plastic casing. The batteries can be charged many times, but after numerous cycles of recharging, lead plates eventually deteriorate causing the battery to lose its ability to hold stored energy for any period of time. Once the lead acid battery ceases to be effective, it is unusable and deemed a used lead acid battery (ULAB) and classified as a hazardous waste under the Basel Convention.




Recycled lead is a valuable commodity for many people in the developing world, making the recovery of car batteries (known as used lead acid batteries or ULAB) a viable and profitable business. However, in many developing countries and some in rapid transition, ULAB recycling and smelting operations are often in densely populated urban areas with few (if any) pollution controls. ULAB recycling occurs in every city in the developing world as part of a complicated cycle where batteries are sold by major firms internationally, recovered in small scale local operations, and recycled back to the battery manufacturers. In many cases the local recycling operations are not managed in an environmentally sound manner and release lead contaminated waste into the local environment and eco systems in critical quantities.


As urban centers in the Developing World become more populated, the confluence of increased car ownership and high unemployment rates has led to a proliferation of informal ULAB reconditioning and recovery using archaic melting operations. In many cases, informal battery melting is a subsistence activity – undertaken in homes (usually the kitchen), to recover and sell the secondary lead recovered. Ignorance of the risks of lead contamination combined with a lack of viable economic alternatives has led to the systemic poisoning of many poor populations throughout the developing world.


Of the 8+ million tons of lead produced worldwide every year, over 85% goes into the lead acid batteries used in automobiles, emergency power supplies, telecommunications, IT and security systems. More than 40,000 metric tons of lead are lost to landfills every year. According to the federal Toxic Release Inventory, another 70,000 metric tons are released in the lead mining and manufacturing process.


Exposure Pathways


Soil containing lead compounds can turn to dust and become airborne. This enables the lead compounds to be inhaled or ingested. Lead can also leach into water supplies.

Children are often exposed to lead by playing on the waste furnace slag and handling rocks or dirt containing lead, while engaging in typical hand-to-mouth activity, as well as by bringing objects covered with lead dust back into the home.


Health Effects


Acute lead poisoning can occur when workers directly exposed to large amounts of lead through inhaling dust, fumes or vapors dispersed in the workplace air. However, chronic poisoning from absorbing low amounts of lead over long periods of time is a much more common and pervasive problem. Health risks include impaired physical growth, kidney damage, retardation, and in extreme cases even death. Lead can enter the body through the lungs or the mouth, and over long periods can accumulate in the bones. Lead poisoning can lead to tiredness, headache, aching bones and muscles, forgetfulness, loss of appetite and sleep disturbance. This is often followed by constipation and attacks of intense pain in the abdomen, called lead colic. In extreme cases of lead poisoning, convulsions, coma, delirium and possibly death can occur.

Children are more susceptible to lead poisoning than adults and may suffer permanent neurological damage. Women that are pregnant and become exposed to lead can result in damage to the fetus and birth defects.


What is Being Done.


The Blacksmith Institute is currently trying to mitigate lead pollution from ULABs in 7 countries around the world with a project entitled, "The Initiative for Responsible Battery Recycling". The project focuses on ending endemic exposure to lead from improper ULAB recycling through education, remediation of legacy contaminated soils, developing new responsible policies on appropriate management of ULAB, and either formalizing the ULAB collection or providing other sources of income for the informal sector operators.


Some sites with the pollution problem of used lead acid batteries:


– Metric International Acid Battery Recycling Industry,Tanzania

– Yuasa Battery Industry Ltd. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

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