By Kelechi Ekwegh
Lagos-Lead acid batteries are used in millions and billions of Lorries, automobile vehicles, motor bikes and now clean electricity storage technologies worldwide. Eventually these batteries wear out and needs to be replaced.
The batteries contain large amount of lead either as solid metal or lead-oxide powder. An average battery can contain up to 10kilogram or about 22 pounds of lead. The current selling price of lead is about $1.14 per pound (or $2,504 or £2,146 per ton): because of its economic value, lead acid batteries are often time recycled but informally. However, the same lead acid as found in batteries is toxic and causes a wide range of negative health effects.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) report in 2009, Lead poisoning accounts for at least 0.6% of the global burden of disease. The Blacksmith Institute considers lead pollution one of the world’s worst pollution problems.
In most Western countries, the problem is almost contained. However, in developing countries with little or no regulation on used lead acid batteries such as Nigeria, and Senegal, there are devastating lead epidemics, most of which are unregistered.
Between 2005 and 2006, four waves of lead poisoning involving batteries were reported in China. And in the Vietnamese village of Dong Mai, lead smelting left 500 people with chronic illnesses and 25 children with brain damage before the government shut it down in 2009, according to San Francisco-based OK International, which works on environmental standards for battery manufacturing.
Another severe lead poising epidemic occurred in Kosovo, resulting in tens of fatalities. The affected people lived within 200 yards of three huge mounds of industrial waste, the by-product of a lead smelting factory that operated from the 1920’s until 2000. Haina, in the Dominican Republic, has been considered by the United Nations as one of the sites with the highest level of lead contamination in the world. The entire population is affected by lead poisoning because of its close proximity to an abandoned lead-acid battery recycling smelter.
In 2008, Blacksmith Institute was called to Senegal after the deaths of 18 children under the age of five in the Dakar neighborhood of Thiaroye-Sur-Mer. The children died from acute lead poisoning from exposure to deadly lead dust due to the informal recycling of used car batteries. Until recently, the main economic activity in Thiaroye-Sur-Mer involved the haphazard melting of car batteries to reclaim the scrap lead inside. Because this activity was conducted informally, out in the open air, and largely by the women of the community, the children of Thiaroye-Sur-Mer were particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning. The Senegalese government ran blood tests on relatives of the dead children. Their mothers and siblings were found to have lead levels of 1,000 micrograms per liter. Just 100 micrograms per liter is enough to impair brain development in children.
In 2012 at the same time the worst outbreak occurred in Zamfara, Nigeria where over 400 children died because of exposure to lead caused by gold mining, and thousands more now have their brain damaged and disabled. While the government of Nigeria is yet to activate remedy to the lead exposure via mining, it still seats on more than 110,000 used lead acid batteries; most of which are poorly managed, recycled and exported informally; without adequate regulation.
According to Oko-Insitute for applied Ecology’s report titled “Generation of Used Lead Acid Batteries in Africa, in April 2016, in many African countries, the recycling of lead-acid batteries is economically attractive because of its high lead-content. However, due to inappropriate practices and the absence of concrete regulation from the government environmental agencies, in most parts of Africa, the recycling of lead-acid batteries more than often times have negative impact on human health and the environment; as recycling processes are dirty, informal and unregulated. From the report, a field studies on the lead-acid battery recycling chain in Ghana, it was found that “persons involved in collecting and transport of lead-acid batteries drain the contained acid prior to transport by opening the plugs or punching holes into the case and dug ground holes. Due to the toxicity of lead and the sulfuric acid of the batteries, this causes massive lead contamination of soil, and ground water.
Besides, batteries are manually broken to extract the lead scrap which causes massive emissions of highly harmful lead-dust. This situation is not different in part of Nigeria like ketu Lagos, Asaba Delta State, Onitsha, Kaduna, Ibadan and Ogun state where many metal recyclers and smelters actually conduct their businesses in very dirty ways.
With over 110,000 tons of used lead-acid batteries generated in Nigeria annually from automotive batteries and alternative energy battery systems; according to a research carried out by the Recycling and Economic Development Initiative of Nigeria (REDIN), with the support of Heinrich Boell Stiftung Nigeria, there is urgent need for the Nigerian government through her environmental ministry and agencies to wake up to this reality, and speedily put in place instant policies to regulate the ULAB sector. This is more pressing as the Federal Ministry of Environment confirmed that Nigeria does not have a policy to regulate used lead acid batteries in the country at the training workshop on “Environmental Sound Management of ULABS and the Application of the Benchmark Assessment Tool (BAT) in the context of the Implementing the Basel Convention”, on Friday 20th October 2017 in Lagos Nigeria; organised by Heinrich Boell Stiftung Nigeria, in collaboration with REDIN, Clean Tech hub, Okeo Institute Germany and the Renewable Energy Association of Nigeria (REAN).
The good news is that while the Nigerian government doesn’t have to take all the years and bureaucracy to develop a new policy on ULAB, it’s signing to the Basel Convention on 15th March 1990 and following ratifications on 13th march 1991 and 24th May 2004; gives her the advantage of simply adopting or best domesticate the UNEP’s Basel Convention Training Manual for the National Management Plans for Used Lead Acid Batteries, as well as apply holistic field monitoring tools like the BAT, after training their regulating officers on the assessment process. This urgency is also necessary when consideration the country’s expansion in clean renewable energy technology to support the poor state of electricity generation and distribution in the country. This would mean a massive increase in the number of used lead acid batteries in Nigeria.
To tap into the economic gains of processed lead either for ingot export or reuse in the manufacturing of new battery, Anambra State in Nigeria fortunately enough currently houses one of the cleanest lead recycling facility in West Africa, if not the entire continent; according to ILA certified inspectors. With a facility having a closed loop system to ensure minimum environmental pollution, and health mechanism for workers put in place, Nigerian government can encourage such formalised and standard recycling process as this would not only create new cleaner jobs for the unemployed youths, but also accelerate the production of made in Nigeria batteries.
Such encouragement can be in the form of tax holidays, setting ULAB export quota to ensure that clean formal local processors have enough ULABs for their production chain, before export; as well as ensuring through its Ministry of Environment that dirty and informal smelters are strictly regulated to either improve or are shut down; knowing fully well that the health and environment of its population cannot be bargained or played politics with.
Kelechi Ekwegh is a freelance Writer from Amuwo Odofin, Lagos Nigeria