The spent batteries Americans turn in for recycling are increasingly being sent to Mexico, where their lead is often extracted by crude methods that are illegal in the United States, exposing plant workers and local residents to dangerous levels of a toxic metal.
The rising flow of batteries is a result of strict new Environmental Protection Agency standards on lead pollution, which make domestic recycling more difficult and expensive, but do not prohibit companies from exporting the work and the danger to countries where standards are low and enforcement is lax.
Mexican environmental officials acknowledge that they lack the money, manpower and technical capacity to police a fast-growing industry now operating in many parts of the country, often in dilapidated neighborhoods like the one here, 30 miles northwest of Mexico City.
Batteries are imported through official channels or smuggled in to satisfy a growing demand for lead, once cheap and readily available but now in short global supply. Lead batteries are crucial to cellphone towers, solar power arrays and the exploding Chinese car market, and the demand for lead has increased as much as tenfold in a decade.
An analysis of trade statistics by The New York Times shows that about 20 percent of spent American vehicle and industrial batteries are now exported to Mexico, up from 6 percent in 2007. About 20 million such batteries will cross the border this year, according to United States trade statistics, and that does not take into account batteries smuggled in as mislabeled metal scrap or second-hand goods. In September, more than 60 18-wheelers full of old batteries crossed the border each day, trade records show.
Spent batteries house up to 40 pounds of lead, which can cause high blood pressure, kidney damage and abdominal pain in adults, and serious developmental delays and behavioral problems in young children because it interferes with neurological development. When batteries are broken for recycling, the lead is released as dust and, during melting, as lead-laced emissions.
Lead battery recyclers in the United States now operate in sealed, highly mechanized plants — like labs working with dangerous germs. Their smokestacks are fitted with scrubbers, and their perimeters are surrounded by lead-monitoring devices.
But for much of the past decade, at the vast recycling compound of Industrial Mondelo here, batteries have been dismantled by men wielding hammers, and their lead melted in furnaces whose smokestacks vent to the air outside, where lead particles can settle everywhere from schoolyards to food carts. Officials of the plant, which has been given more than a dozen citations and fines for lead emissions and improper storage of dangerous materials, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The recycling factory has put a neighborhood of children at serious risk of lead exposure, said Marisa Jacott, director of Fronteras Comunes, an environmental group in Mexico City. Ms. Jacott wants to test young residents living near the plant but lacks the money to do so. The town’s elementary school is on the same block as the recycling plant, which recently moved the bulk of its operations to a larger facility elsewhere. Lead pollution remains in the ground for decades.
A sample of soil collected by The Times in the schoolyard showed a lead level of 2,000 parts per million, five times the limit for children’s play areas in the United States set by the Environmental Protection Agency. In most states, that would rate as a "significant environmental lead hazard" and require immediate remediation, like covering the area with concrete or disposing of the soil.
"If we export, we should only be sending batteries to countries with standards as strict as ours, and in Mexico that is not the case," said Perry Gottesfeld, executive director of Occupational Knowledge International, a San Francisco group devoted to reducing lead exposure.
One border, 2 standards
While Mexico does have some regulation for smelting and recycling lead, the laws are poorly enforced and even licensed plants are allowed to release about 20 times as much lead as their American equivalents, said Mr. Gottesfeld, who has studied the export trade.
Some American companies recycling in Mexico say that they already exceed that country’s requirements and that they intend to bring their Mexican plants up to American standards. But there is no way to ensure that will happen. The E.P.A. says it "does not inspect, monitor or verify the Mexican facilities."
Which is why doctors and teachers in Mexico are demanding testing in a country that has little or none. At her community clinic on the outskirts of Guadalajara, Dr. Lourdes Pérez Ramírez said that she routinely saw children with seriously delayed development and that she was convinced that lead poisoning from a nearby recycling plant might play a role, although she cannot prove it, because studies have not been done. "I think there is danger from the lead," she said, "but to find it you have to look. You have to look!"
Although lead batteries have long been classified as hazardous waste, the E.P.A. only last year began requiring that American companies report their exports — but already, even that minimal system is not achieving the agency’s goal of safer recycling. Exporters must estimate how many batteries they intend to transfer out of the country in the coming year and specify the recipient plant. That paperwork is sent to Semarnat, the Mexican counterpart to the E.P.A., which is responsible for accepting or rejecting the shipments. In 2010, Semarnat never refused.
Then each March, American companies are supposed to tally how many batteries were actually sent, but this year only 3 out of 10 exporters complied.
The E.P.A. declined to speak publicly on the export trade, instead explaining in a statement that its role was "limited to processing" the paperwork for the new battery tracking system.
Many people familiar with the industry said more needed to be done.
"We’re shipping hazardous waste to a neighbor ill equipped to process it and we’re doing it legally, turning our heads, and pretending it’s not a problem," said Robert Finn, chief executive of RSR, a Dallas-based lead recycler that operates solely in the United States, and is concerned about the loss of raw materials to Mexico.
Sergio Herrera, deputy director for industrial inspection at the Mexican legal agency that oversees environmental compliance, known as Profepa, said regulating the battery trade was an "important priority," but early efforts to control it have mostly exposed the daunting size of the task. A recent government survey found that 19 of 20 recycling plants did not have proper authorization for importing dangerous waste, including batteries. And a retrospective review of truck manifests turned up 142 illegal shipments containing millions of spent car batteries that had not been detected at the border.
Acumuladores de Jalisco, the recycling plant near Dr. Pérez Ramírez’s clinic, operates without the proper authorization to recycle imports and when it was last inspected in 2006, was found to lack storage for even "one fifth of the hazardous waste it generates." Yet there is no record of any fine, or follow-up, which Mr. Herrera called "a deficiency on our part in not verifying our procedures." The recycler did not respond to repeated interview requests.
Along the border, where American vigilance focuses on drugs and illegal immigrants, there is little effort to stanch the flow, with the Customs and Border Protection agency dealing "mostly with imports," said Erlinda Byrd, an agency spokeswoman, though she noted there had been some spot checks for illegal waste exports. This year, the Mexican government trained more than 200 of its border agents on better detection of illegal shipments of batteries and other electronic waste.
But most illegal activity is discovered by accident: the criminal division of the E.P.A. says it has recently opened investigations into three cases of illegal battery exports, the first such cluster. All resulted from tips, often from American companies trying to operate within government rules, agency officials said.
In Mexico, a truck from Texas was impounded in October after a border agent noticed it was dripping acid. It contained 1,800 spent batteries. The truck’s paperwork indicated that it was heading for a licensed recycler, but the driver told the police he was really taking it elsewhere. Another case involved 22.5 tons of batteries sent from Texas whose lead had already been resold to buyers in China.
The amount of lead shipped from Mexico to China has nearly tripled in three years to an estimated 150 million tons in 2011, according to government trade statistics. Mexico’s production of lead from mining has increased only minimally since 2007.
'A putrid mist'
Chronic lead poisoning in children is hard to diagnose because the symptoms are fairly common, among them low I.Q. and attention issues. Without blood test results, a definitive diagnosis is impossible. Few labs in Mexico offer lead testing and the cost — of about $100 — is beyond the reach of poor families.
After Mariel Landeros developed seizures last year in her first months of life, her family worried that the battery recycling plant across from her home in Naucalpan de Juárez was to blame.
Industrial Mondelo has been recycling batteries for nearly a decade, but production has grown manyfold in the last few years. "As soon as they started, there was a putrid mist over the town," said Mariel’s aunt, Irma Landeros Aguirre.
She had become increasingly concerned about the problems of her own daughter, Krystell, now 16, who suffered from nosebleeds and stomachaches, and lagged years behind her peers in school. Krystell had been referred for tests and was on a medley of drugs to control her behavior. But she had never had her blood tested for lead.
So when the baby exhibited serious neurological problems, the family visited the National Institute of Pediatrics in Mexico City. Mariel’s first test came back at 18.4 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood when she was 2 months old, well above what doctors consider safe for children. At 4 months, the level had gone up to 24.8. The doctor prescribed powerful medicine to bind the lead in her body so that it can be cleaned out by her kidneys.
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Blood lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood in young children can result in lowered intelligence, reading and learning disabilities, impaired hearing, reduced attention span, hyperactivity and antisocial behavior." An advisory task force in the United States has recommended remediation for children to 5 micrograms.
It is difficult to prove that lead battery recycling is the culprit in any one poisoning case, because there are other sources of lead exposure, like lead-based paint or ceramic pottery. But performing crude battery recycling close to where people live is a frightening combination, experts say.
Outside Acumuladores de Jalisco, the recycler at the edge of Guadalajara, open-air restaurants and a farmers’ market sidle up to the factory’s dirty brick wall. Fruits and vegetables are piled on crates and children play on the ground. A sample of that dirt tested at an accredited lab in the United States contained a lead level of 485 parts per million, a rate unsafe for play areas, let alone food handling.
Lead is gold
The American car battery industry likes to boast that it has the highest recycling rate for any commodity — 97 percent of the lead is recycled — and most states have laws mandating that stores take back old batteries. Whether deposited at the store where they were purchased or with a local mechanic, used batteries are redirected to recycling plants, where the real goal is not environmental stewardship but extracting the precious lead that is the gold of a protean trading system where traceability is impossible.
The provenance of any one battery is hard to ascertain because big stores like AutoZone and Wal-Mart put their own brand names on batteries that may be manufactured by various companies. Similarly, some large battery manufacturers like Johnson Controls and Exide Technologies take back their batteries and operate some recycling plants themselves — in the United States, abroad or both. But they sometimes send batteries out to external recyclers, and buy lead from these outside recyclers for their battery-making operations.
At some point in their existence many used batteries are sold to middlemen who ship or sell them for lead extraction to the cheapest processor — increasingly, in Mexico, despite the transport cost — so the lead can be reused or resold. The price of lead scrap sold on trading Web sites has varied from 25 to 40 cents a pound in the past year, up from 5 cents a pound a decade ago. The lower the cost to extract the lead, the bigger the profit — a reality, experts say, that encourages smuggling and has fueled a black market in batteries.
Federico Magalini, a researcher at the United Nations University who is trying to quantify the illegal lead trade, said batteries were ideal for smuggling because — unlike bulky refrigerators or computer monitors —they are compact and loaded with lead. "If you want to make a lot of money you can just smash the plastics, throw the acid wherever you want, and sell the lead at a high price," he said.
But the increasing export of lead batteries has hobbled many American recyclers, especially smaller players, who now say they have only enough spent batteries to run one shift a day, resulting in layoffs. "Our industry is built on the ability to keep that material here," said Bruce Cole, executive vice president, strategy and business development, of Exide, one of the largest domestic manufacturers and recyclers.
Already hurt by the recession, American recyclers are now also suffering from the cost of tougher regulation. The E.P.A. has reduced allowable lead levels in both smokestack emissions and ambient air by a staggering amount in the last three years because of a growing appreciation of the devastating effect that even low levels of lead have on health. American recyclers estimate the cost of compliance for a typical plant at $20 million.
Companies are being forced to make difficult decisions.
Exide, which has five recycling plants in the United States, does no recycling in Mexico, according to Mr. Cole, who said it was "not in our interest" to "skirt regulations."
Some battery brokers have begun trucking their goods to independent smelters south of the border instead of to American plants.
Johnson Controls, the Milwaukee-based battery giant, trucked hundreds of thousands of spent batteries to its own recycling plant in Mexico last year, according to E.P.A. export notices. The company runs one licensed recycling plant in Mexico and is completing construction of a second; it is also building a new recycling plant in South Carolina.
Alex Molinaroli, a senior executive at Johnson Controls, said its plants in Mexico far exceeded that country’s regulatory standards and that they would be upgraded to meet the new American standards when they take full effect in 2013. "We don’t have a Mexican standard or a U.S. standard or a German standard," he said. "We have our one standard globally, which today is being driven by the E.P.A."
Although Johnson Controls has won praise from the E.P.A. for environmental innovation in the United States, its Mexican recycling plant does not face the same regulatory scrutiny.
Working in the dark
Mexico does have some regulations governing lead exposure, and many plants hire doctors to monitor lead in the blood of workers. But the results are not made public or even disclosed to the workers themselves. If the levels come back high, employees are sent home for several days with an analgesic for the bone pain that typically accompanies adult lead poisoning, said Ms. Jacott, of Fronteras Comunes, who has spent two years interviewing workers. There are no requirements for monitoring lead levels beyond the factory.
Residents who live near the Acumuladores de Jalisco plant said they had been told by the government that the ground water was contaminated with lead, and they tick off maladies they attribute to lead exposure.
The men who disassemble the batteries end each shift covered in dust from their work and must shower and change before they leave, said the wife of one worker, who said that the factory doctor took good care of the men. "Anyway," she said, "there are not many other jobs around here."
Environmental advocates and domestic recyclers say the onus should be on the United States to make sure its old batteries do not become Mexico’s health problem. Some say a system is needed for inspecting foreign recyclers so they can be held to American standards. But one group, Slab Watchdog, has called on companies like Wal-Mart — which sells a huge share of the nation’s batteries and prides itself on environmentally friendly operations — to guarantee that their batteries are recycled domestically.
The company’s spent batteries, a spokeswoman said, now go to Johnson Controls — the company that last year sent by far the most batteries to Mexico.
Andrew W. Lehren contributed reporting from New York, and Karla Zabludovsky from Mexico City. David Agren contributed research from Guadalajara, Mexico.
This article, "Lead From Old U.S. Batteries Sent to Mexico Raises Risks," first appeared in The New York Times.