Nigeria and other African countries have been ranked as the most fertile ground for rampant used lead-acid battery recycling even as close to 26 million people are at risk of exposure to lead in the continent. Other countries listed are Ghana, Kenya and Cameroon.
A report monitored on Ecologist website described the recycling of lead batteries by melting down used batteries – also known as ‘secondary smelting’ as a profitable business in these countries but toxic emissions from the re-smelting of lead from old batteries is poisoning workers and polluting nearby communities and environs.
Lead is a scarce metal; however, it can be recycled an infinite number of times. This makes it possible for almost all cars to use lead-acid batteries, which account for more than the 80 per cent of the global demand of lead.
In Africa, these batteries are also used for fishing boats and the burgeoning solar and winding industry. This is why batteries are rarely discarded as waste around the world.
The recycling of used batteries may result in high lead exposures that can cause severe health effects and pollute the environment unless protective gear is used and good procedures are implemented.
Although sometimes its serious health consequences go unseen, lead is one of the most toxic metals on earth, especially for children.
Inhaled or ingested through water, food, dust or dirt, it may cause brain damage, decreased IQ, behaviourial problems, reduced growth, kidney damage, digestive and reproductive problems and even death.
In every African country, tens of thousands of individuals working on the side of the road or in backyards carry out lead battery recycling, according to United Nations sources.
Besides this widespread informal smelting, corruption has helped big companies operate in many African countries disregarding international environmental regulations.
“While the recycling of lead batteries is mostly done in a quite safe manner in industrialised economies, the conditions are alarming in developing countries such as Ghana, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria or Indonesia”, said Andreas Manhart, a researcher at the Öko- Institut in Berlin, Germany.
According to the German institute, the lead exposure often reaches life threatening levels in these factories, and deadly accidents have been reported from Senegal, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana.
With an estimated burden of disease of nine million Disability Adjusted Life Years, or DALYs, according to Pure Earth, one of the most common sources of lead exposure in low- and middle-income countries is from ULABs.
The extraction of lead from batteries is part of a complicated cycle where the devices are sold by major firms internationally, recovered in smallscale local operations in many developing countries and often recycled back to the large manufacturers.
“The largest export of used batteries comes to Africa in used cars,” explains Perry Gottesfeld, executive director of the non-profit OK International.
“Some of these ULABs are shipped illegally with the wrong customs code so they cannot be tracked, but the biggest source is still the second-hand cars that go over the African roads.”
These batteries’ lifespans last two or three years, and then they are ready to enter the African recycling market, where big companies come often from India and China, where people are becoming increasingly aware of the challenges that this industry poses.