In The News
Journal of Environmental History Highlights Dangers from Battery Exports
April 2nd, 2015

The January 2015 issue of the Journal of Environmental Health features a scholarly article that analyzes lead battery recycling practices and highlights the need for oversight of U.S. battery exports. In his article, professor Jay Turner provides a historic view of lead acid battery recycling and the dangers posed by irresponsible smelters and regulations allowing battery exports to Mexico. Below are just a few key excerpts that underscore the need to act on spent lead acid battery exports to Mexico:

“Trade policies and tightening Environmental Protection Agency regulations have pushed lead-acid recycling activities abroad with consequences for human and environmental health that belie any straightforward claims about environmental sustainability.”

“…the recycling rate dropped just after the implementation of the major occupational health and environmental laws of the 1970s that aimed to safeguard workers and the public from the hazards of lead pollution… the social and environmentalhealth consequences of the lead industry continue to raise concerns. In recent decades, both primary and secondary lead operations have moved from the United States to Mexico and other countries, where emission standards and worker health regulations are less strict.”

“this article approaches the lead-acid battery industry as an envirotechnical system that has linked together mines and local landscapes, smelters and communities, and technologies and bodies in unhealthy and, often, unjust ways…changes in regulatory and trade policies have simultaneously driven the lead-acid battery industry to restructure in ways that increasingly export the social and environmental costs of lead-acid batteries abroad.”

“But for all these hard-fought successes, a concern that frustrated the industry in the late 1980s resurfaced in the 2000s. It was this: while the EPA focused on measuring lead by the part per million in factories or by the part per billion in people’s bodies, lead by the ton was leaking across the nation’s borders. Initially, such exports were seen as a release valve for a stagnant domestic lead market in the 1980s. When domestic smelters slowed their scrap purchases in the
early 1980s, due to low lead prices, foreign smelters in countries such as Taiwan or Brazil would still pay because of lower labor and regulatory compliance costs and local demand—which kept the lead out of landfills.”

“But the volume of exports overseas is small compared with the surge in exports from the United States to Mexico over the past decade. Since 2000 the flow of lead in spent lead-acid batteries from the United States to Mexico has grown from 4,300 metric tons to 200,000 metric tons in 2010, siphoning off 20 percent of the flow of spent lead-acid batteries from the United States.”

“Observers… saw the flood of lead to Mexico as a “race to the bottom” driven by trade liberalization.”

The full text of the article can be purchased here.

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