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Aside from exhaust pipe emissions, lead batteries have the most detrimental environmental impact of any part of an automobile. Every car made today contains approximately 27 pounds of lead - most of which is in the battery1. Lead batteries are also widely used for forklifts, golf carts, and for backup power in the computer, solar, and telecommunication industries.
Inefficient production and recycling operations release tons of lead into the environment. During battery manufacturing and recycling operations, lead is melted and resulting fumes are released into the air. This toxic metal is then available for human absorption while airborne, before settling in dust and soil. Lead contamination persists in dust and soil and is often the most significant route of exposure to young children who generally play close to the ground and have regular hand-to-mouth contact. In addition, environmental contamination of ground and surface water may also occur. Lead from these sources is bioaccumulative and has significant adverse impacts on all species. This natural resource is being widely used in this unsustainable manner with implications for the health of natural ecosystems and humans. Consider the following facts:
- The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 120 million people are over exposed to lead (approximately three times the number infected by HIV/AIDS) and 99 percent of the most severely affected are in the developing world.2
- Global lead battery production is estimated to be worth $36.2 billion in 2010 and is steadily growing.3
- Approximately 87% of all lead used in the U.S. in 2010 went into batteries and approximately 80% of all global lead consumption goes into batteries.4 5
Isn't it true that over 90 percent of all batteries are recycled?
- Although recycling rates for lead batteries are very high, the process can cause a significant amount of lead to be emitted into the environment unless it is done in proper facilities. In the developing world, used lead batteries are routinely melted down for scrap in backyards and on the side of roads in urban areas.
Are lead emission and exposure standards in the U.S. adequate?
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revised the National Air Quality standard for lead in 2008 with a 10-fold decrease from 1.5 μg/m³ to 0.15 μg/m³. However, there are many areas of the U.S. that are not yet in compliance with the standard, which is being phased in through 2016.6 In the U.S. Occupational standards for airborne lead in the workplace have not changed since the 1970s despite a clear understanding of the health effects of lead on adults exposed at relatively low levels. Therefore exposures permitted under existing regulatory levels in and around lead battery facilities in the U.S. are still a serious public health concern.
Are more lead batteries produced in developing countries to avoid U.S. pollution control laws?
- Imports of new lead batteries to the U.S. are rising rapidly as primary production and recycling shifts to developing countries with fewer environmental regulations and less enforcement capacity. Many imported lead batteries enter the U.S. in new cars, which account for almost half of all new car sales, but even more are imported for the replacement market.7 8 Data from the U.S. International Trade Commission indicates that imports rose more than 71% from 2000 to 2010.
Are more batteries being recycled in developing countries to avoid U.S. pollution control laws?
- Approximately 12% of used lead batteries generated in the U.S. are exported to Mexico and this has been increasing since the U.S. lowered the ambient air quality standard for lead in 2008. Exports of used lead batteries from the U.S. to Mexico increased 112% from 2009 to 2010. Twice as much lead is exported to Mexico in used lead batteries than is exported in all of the e-waste exported from the U.S.9
Are there substitutes for lead batteries?
- Although there are substitutes for lead batteries, they contain other heavy metals such as nickel, cobalt, manganese, and lithium, which can be difficult to recycle but can also outlast lead batteries. These alternatives cost considerably more than lead batteries and also pose significant environmental and health impacts if not carefully manufactured and recycled properly.
Do hybrid and electric cars contain lead batteries?
- Most hybrid cars, including the Toyota Prius, Toyota Highlander, Ford Escape, Honda Insight, and Saturn Vue, use a nickel metal hydride battery along with a conventional 12 volt battery.10 Both the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt run on lithium ion battery backs, but also have standard 12 volt lead batteries.11 12
1 Jeff Gearhart, Dean Menke, Charles Griffith, Kevin Mills; Getting the lead out: Impact of and alternatives for automotive lead uses; Environmental Defense, Ecology Center, Clean Car Campaign; July 2003.
2 World Health Organization, Lead: Assessing the Environmental Burden of Disease at National and Local Levels, p. 51, 2003.
3 Data from the Industrial Economics and Knowledge Research Center of the Industrial Technology Research Institute. http://investtaiwan.nat.gov.tw/news/ind_news_eng_display.jsp?newsid=64Co...
4 U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries 2011 http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/mcs/2011/mcs2011.pdf
7 U.S. Department of Transportation, National Transportation Statistics 2004, Bureau of Transportation; Table 1-17, January 2005.
9 OK International and Fronteras Comunes. Exporting Hazards: U.S. Shipments of Used Lead Batteries to Mexico Take Advantage of Lax Environmental and Worker Health Regulations, June 2011.
10 2011 LEAF Owner’s Manual. http://www.nissan-techinfo.com/refgh0v/og/Leaf/2011-Nissan-Leaf.pdf
11 Chevy Volt Owner’s Manual. http://www.chevrolet.com/assets/pdf/owners/manuals/2011/2011_chevrolet_v...