Exportation of Spent Batteries Harms Mexicans

Recent EPA standards regulating the recycling of lead may be good for the United States, but they can be deadly for Mexico.[1]  These standards make the recycling of lead batteries more costly and burdensome, but do not restrict the export of the waste.[2]  As a result, companies are shipping their spent lead batteries to Mexico, where they do not have the standards or technology to ensure that lead is properly disposed of.[3]

Lead batteries are used in automobiles, and companies send their spent batteries to Mexico and other countries both legally and illegally. [4] Even discounting the fact that so many spent batteries are smuggled over the border, it is alarming that 20 percent of old American vehicle and industrial batteries are legally exported to Mexico. [5] Once in Mexico, the batteries are recycled cheaply, because the standards there are much more lax and are very leniently enforced.[6]

In the United States, batteries are recycled in sealed plants, where any lead exposure is closely monitored.[7]  When Americans send batteries to Mexico, however, people manually take apart the batteries, and can become sick as a result.[8]  The lead is then melted, with the resulting smoke being released into the atmosphere.[9]  One recycling plant in Naucalpan De Juárez is located on the same block as an elementary school, and the schoolyard is now facing a lead level of five times the EPA’s limit in the United States.[10]  The result of this kind of lead exposure is terrible for both humans and the environment.[11]  Lead poisoning, which is especially dangerous for children, can result in brain, kidney, and nervous system damage; seizures; and even death.[12]  Lead’s effects on the environment are also frightening: air-borne lead can travel long distances, and its accumulations can remain on the soil for 2,000 years.[13]  This can result in the extinction of micro-organisms, and have serious effects on both plants and animals.[14]

Although EPA does monitor battery exports, they do not do so in a very effective manner.[15]  At year’s end, companies are required to report the amount of lead they exported, however, in 2011, only three of the ten exporters did so.[16]  Frankly, EPA needs to be more diligent in monitoring this.  It is true that EPA cannot be solely to blame for the high level of exportation, as Semarnat, Mexico’s version of EPA, has never turned away the exported lead.[17]  However, the United States has the responsibility to make sure that we are not simply sending our harmful waste to poorer countries that are incapable of properly disposing of it.  One group, called SLAB Watchdog (SLAB stands for “spent lead acid batteries”) is working to eliminate the harm caused by battery exportation.[18]  Among other things, SLAB Watchdog would like to see that all lead batteries are recycled here in the United States, where we have the most technologically advanced facilities to mitigate all environmental harm. [19]  SLAB Watchdog would also like Federal, state, and local governments to create and enforce stronger regulations to ensure that nobody is harmed by lead battery recycling.[20]

– Kim Bernard, Associate Member


[1] Elisabeth Rosenthal, Used Batteries from U.S. Expose Mexicans to Risk,  N.Y. Times, Dec. 9, 2011, at A1, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/09/science/earth/recycled-battery-lead-puts-mexicans-in-danger.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Doing Business in Mexico, SLAB Watchdog, http://www.slabwatchdog.com/problem/mexico/ (last visited Jan. 20, 2012).

[7] NYT

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Mayo Clinic Staff, Lead Poisoning, Mayo Clinic (Mar. 12, 2011), http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/lead-poisoning/FL00068/DSECTION=complications.

[13] Impact of Lead on Human Health & the Environment, SLAB Watchdog, http://www.slabwatchdog.com/impact/leadimpact/ (last visited Jan. 20, 2012).

[14] Id.

[15] Rosenthal, supra note 1.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Governing Principles, SLAB Watchdog, http://www.slabwatchdog.com/2010/06/principles/ (last visited Jan. 20, 2012).

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

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