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Posted on : May 31, 2005
"Since ancient times, lead has brought us great benefits but also
innumerable poisonings, particularly amongst workers and children," said
Executive Director Klaus Töpfer of the United Nations Environment Programme,
under whose auspices the Basel Convention was adopted.

"The recycling of lead-acid batteries is one of the greatest potential sources
of risk, especially for exposed workers in the informal sector in many
developing countries. The safe recycling of these batteries requires strict
environmental and occupational standards that can only be ensured by specialized
firms, of which only a few are found in developing countries," he said.

Malleable and resistant to corrosion, lead is the most widely used metal after
iron. Of the 2.5 million tons produced worldwide every year, some 75% goes into
the lead-acid batteries used in automobiles, industrial facilities and portable

Lead has been mined for at least 8,000 years and was probably one of the first
health and safety issues in the workplace. Reports of lead poisoning date to
ancient Greece, and high levels of lead have been found in ancient Egyptian

Until recently, artists and craftsmen routinely wetted brushes with their
mouths, accidentally ingesting lead-containing pigments.

In many developing countries, retired batteries are still broken manually using
an axe. This is extremely dangerous to the workers. Inhaling dust, fumes or
vapours dispersed in the workplace air can lead to acute lead poisoning. The
more common problem, however, is chronic poisoning from absorbing low amounts of
lead over long periods of time.

Lead is absorbed into the body through the lungs or the mouth, and about 90% of
it accumulates in the bones. Early symptoms of lead poisoning are tiredness,
headache, aching bones and muscles, forgetfulness, loss of appetite and sleep
disturbance. This is followed by constipation and attacks of intense pain in the
abdomen, called lead colic.

As more lead is absorbed into the body, paralysis sets in. This affects the
radial nerve in particular, causing "wrist drop". In the final stages, the
victim suffers convulsions, coma, delirium and possibly death. Children are more
susceptible to lead poisoning than adults and may suffer permanent neurological
damage. Lead can damage the human foetus, so pregnant women should not work with
lead. Mammals suffer similar effects; cattle, for example, sicken and die when
they consume lead from oils or farm equipment left abandoned in their pasture.

The new Basel guidelines aim to improve the management of lead-acid batteries by
enabling governments to develop the necessary legislation and facilities for
coping with the dramatic growth in the quantity of used batteries. They offer
governments and industry a set of best practices and principles for setting up
effective systems for recycling batteries. Rigorous controls, economic
incentives, appropriate technologies and stable market conditions are the keys
to safety.

Obtaining secondary lead from old batteries is economically attractive, cutting
about 25% from the energy bill compared with mining primary lead. In addition,
batteries are a ubiquitous product with a predictable lifetime, and the large
market for recycled lead creates economies of scale. As a result, battery
manufacturers rely heavily on secondary lead, most of it sourced from recycled
batteries. Some of the lead recycled from batteries in the informal sector,
however, does not re-enter the manufacturing sector but is used instead for
other purposes, such as sinkers for fishing lines.

The 64-page guidelines describe how to collect, transport and store used
batteries. They argue that the most effective approach to collection is to rely
on manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers and service stati
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