US Exports of Hazardous Used Car Batteries to Mexico Rising Significantly

Exports of hazardous lead batteries to Mexico from the U.S. are growing significantly, leading to higher exposures and subsequent public health impacts, according to a report by US and Mexican environmental organizations.

Occupational Knowledge International and Mexico’s Fronteras Comunes quantified the size of lead battery exports and detailed the differences in recycling emissions and worker health protection standards.

"This report raises serious concerns about the contribution of used batteries from the U.S. to lead poisoning south of the border," says Perry Gottesfeld, Executive Director of Occupational Knowledge (OK) International. "It is remarkable that both governments allow U.S. companies to export batteries to Mexico where there is neither the regulatory capacity nor the technology in place to recycle them safely. There are significant health effects from lead at the exposure levels we have documented."

Lead battery exports, which have increased significantly since the tightening of U.S. ambient air standards in 2008, are contributing to occupational and environmental exposures that far exceed levels allowed by the U.S. government, the two groups say. Less stringent environmental and occupational safety regulations in Mexico make it more profitable for companies to ship batteries to Mexico to be recycled.

"We are hopeful that the results of this report will provide the evidence needed to encourage action on behalf of both the U.S. and Mexico to better regulate these hazardous imports to our country," adds Marisa Jacott, Director of Fronteras Comunes. "For the first time, we have a thorough understanding of the scale of these exports and how it contributes to lead emissions in Mexican communities and how workers’ health is suffering because the Mexican government has failed to enact protective standards."

The study, "Exporting Hazards: U.S. Shipments of Used Lead Batteries to Mexico Take Advantage of Lax Environmental and Worker Health Regulations," notes that differences in key environmental and occupational performance measures are even greater than the disparity in regulatory levels.

Additional findings include:

  • From 2009-2010, exports of used lead batteries to Mexico more than doubled
  • Approximately 12% of used lead batteries generated in the U.S. are exported to Mexico
  • Actual airborne lead emissions reported by battery recycling plants in Mexico are approximately 20 times higher than comparable plants in the U.S.
  • The amount of lead exported to Mexico in used batteries is double the amount exported by the U.S. in all other electronic waste (e-waste)
  • The Permissible Exposure Limit for airborne lead in the work place is three times higher in Mexico than in the U.S.

Lead batteries come primarily from cars and trucks but are also used in a range of applications, including cell phone towers, solar systems, golf carts and forklifts. Although governments are undertaking major initiatives to stop the export of e-waste- including computers, TVs, mobile phones and other electronics to developing countries – little attention is being paid to the far larger trade in used batteries. Both lead battery and e-waste recycling can cause significant environmental contamination and health effects in children and adults.

"While many government regulators have focused on the dangers associated with e-waste recycling, they may not be aware that lead battery recycling often has greater impacts on health and the environment," says Gottesfeld. "With more than 20 pounds of lead in a typical car battery, these can cause extensive harm if not reclaimed properly."

The report was conducted between November 2010 and May 2011 and evaluated lead battery recycling facilities across Mexico and the United States.

Here’s the report:

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