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December 29, 2011
Global Threat Being Caused By Recycling Batteries

Another profitable export industry under the guise of recycling has been exposed. A well-developed article in the New York Times describes the U.S. export of car batteries for lead recycling may be causing major environmental problems. The lack of environmental laws and lax regulation results in lead contamination of the local environment as well as related health problems in those who live near or work in the facilities.

The rising flow of batteries is a result of strict new Environmental Protection Agency standards on lead pollution, which make domestic recycling more difficult and expensive, but do not prohibit companies from exporting the work and the danger to countries where standards are low and unregulated.

The spent batteries Americans turn in for recycling are increasingly being sent to Mexico, where their lead is often extracted by crude methods that are illegal in the United States.

However, the story did not mention that this is a global issue. Although the report focuses on United States to Mexico exports, recycling batteries using simplistic mechanics can be dangerous for workers and nearby residents in any region regardless of whether or not the batteries are domestic or imported.

The problem is also larger than just batteries. The lack of protective laws for recycling obsolete electronic waste -- such as TVs and computer monitors -- also carries health risks if not performed in an environmentally-controlled facility. The practice occurs worldwide, including China, India and Africa.

The article clearly mentions the range of adverse health effects, including lead poisoning in adults and children as well as the more subtle nervous system effects of environmental lead exposure. The report, however, could have been more targeted if it had highlighted children's vulnerability. Children are more vulnerable to lead exposure, which can reduce IQs and disrupt behaviors. Young children are exposed to lead from various sources, such as hand-to-mouth behavior seen in toddlers, playing with lead-contaminated dust and soil and breathing lead-laden air particles.

Growing evidence shows that exposure to lead in the environment is associated with cardiovascular disease, including increased risk of hypertension. The lead can deposit in bones and cause long-term health problems in adolescents and adults. However, most studies have looked at lead concentrations in blood, not bone lead, a better indicator of cumulative lead exposure over time. In a recent study, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the University of Michigan School of Public Health found that bone lead was associated with a higher risk of death from all causes, particularly from cardiovascular disease. It is the first study to analyze the association between bone lead and mortality.

"The findings with bone lead are dramatic. It is the first time we have had a biomarker of cumulative exposure to lead and the strong findings suggest that, even in an era when current exposures are low, past exposures to lead represent an important predictor of cardiovascular death, with important public health implications worldwide," said Marc Weisskopf, assistant professor of environmental and occupational epidemiology at HSPH and lead author of the study.

Testing human lead levels in Mexico is difficult because of limited clinics and high cost -- about $100. However, blood lead testing is accessible in developing countries. A cheaper but still accurate method using Atomic Absorption Spectrometry (AAS) has been used in many countries to measure lead exposure in clinical and general populations.


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