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A dangerous export: America's car-battery waste is making Mexican communities sick

The Washington Post  26 February 2016 | Joshua Partlow,  Joby Warrick

DOCTOR GONZALEZ, Mexico — After the initial headaches and nausea, Juan Gonzalez Mendoza’s physical deterioration came swiftly: deep pain in his bones, elbows and knees that refused to bend, then numbness throughout his left side, steady loss of control over his arms and legs, and finally an inability to walk or even stand.

Company doctors where he worked — a battery recycling plant set amid thornbush hills near Monterrey — told him he had a fever. He soon became too sick to do his job feeding used U.S. car batteries into giant ovens. Private medical tests eventually confirmed the problem: acute lead poisoning.

“I lost my equilibrium,” said the 50-year-old Gonzalez, steadying himself against the front gate of his home a few blocks from the Eléctrica Automotriz Omega plant. “I lost everything.”

Gonzalez’s story reflects a common concern in the neighborhoods near the factory, where pallets of spent car batteries are converted into lead ingots to reuse in new batteries. Elevated levels of lead have turned up in workers’ blood, test results show, as well as in nearby lots where children play and families raise livestock, according to interviews with residents and current and former factory employees. Company officials did not respond to multiple requests by email and phone for comment.

The suffering is local, yet the lead in such battery-recycling plants mainly originates from miles away in the United States. In recent years, a tide of used batteries has swept into northern Mexico as metal recyclers seek to profit from the country’s relatively lax controls on lead exposure in the workplace and the environment.

While U.S. politicians express outrage over elevated lead levels in drinking water in Flint, Mich., they have done little to stem the flow of car batteries — each containing about 20 pounds of lead — south of the border. Officials estimate that the number of old batteries shipped to Mexico has grown by more than 400 percent in the past decade, spurred in part by tougher U.S. laws.

“Even as we’re strengthening regulations in the United States, we’re witnessing a larger share of lead exports going to countries with much weaker controls and sometimes no laws at all,” said Perry Gottesfeld, president of Occupational Knowledge International, a nonprofit group that tracks industrial exposure to hazardous chemicals.

As many as one in five lead-acid batteries from American vehicles — from suburban minivans to fleet buses and trucks operated by government agencies — end up nowadays in Mexican recycling plants, to be broken down by workers under conditions that range from adequate to abysmal, according to U.S. consultants who have studied the industry. Though Mexico has sought to strengthen standards for lead exposure, no plants have the costly pollution controls and worker-protection systems in place at state-of-the-art recycling facilities in the United States, experts say.

“We’ve seen places where workers literally break open batteries with axes,” said Tim Whitehouse, an attorney who investigated Mexican battery smelters for the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an international organization created by the United States, Canada and Mexico to monitor the environmental impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement. “Some are run by cartels who use them to launder money. Some extract the lead to sell locally for use in ammunition or in fishing weights.”

Workers and family members often are left in the dark about the risks they face. Gonzalez used his vacation days from the Omega plant to travel to a private medical clinic for a better explanation of his strange illness. Blood-lab results shown to The Washington Post indicated lead concentrations well above the level that would trigger a worker’s removal from the job in many U.S. states.

For nine months he was incapacitated, stuck in bed and unable to work, Gonzalez said. Others in the plant simply suffer in silence, afraid of losing their jobs.

“There are many,” he said, “who have more lead than me.”

It’s a problem that shouldn’t exist, at least not in the industrial West. Scientific studies a half-century ago documented the insidious health effects of lead exposure, prompting a U.S. ban on lead additives in paint and gasoline as well as increasingly tougher safeguards for people working around the metal.

The discovery of lead in the water supply in Flint sparked a scandal in part because such problems are so rare now in the United States.

Automobile batteries are among a handful of common consumer products that still contain large amounts of lead. And in the United States, nearly all spent batteries end up being recycled, which involves removing the plastic, acid and other chemicals and then melting down the lead to use in new batteries.

U.S. battery recycling takes places mainly in a small number of high-capacity, high-tech smelters. Workers wear protective clothing to ensure no traces of lead leave the plant with them. Special exhaust scrubbers trap tiny lead particles so that they do not escape into nearby neighborhoods. Electronic monitors sniff the air to guard against accidental exposures.

“We have an infrastructure here that was built to handle these materials,” said Robert Finn, chief executive of RSR Corp., a Texas smelting company. Finn’s firm recently purchased expensive pollution-control systems that far exceed the requirements set by the Environmental Protection Agency — an investment Finn says was morally necessary to protect workers and surrounding communities.

But RSR and other U.S. smelters have seen much of their business leave the country since exposure limits for American workers were tightened. Some U.S. companies have purchased or built smelters just over the border, and batteries unclaimed by the American firms are distributed to Mexican companies, ranging from the medium-size Omega facility to tiny shops that operate out of private homes and garages. “The U.S. government can’t tell you where these batteries are going,” Finn said.

While Mexico also has updated its laws in the past three years, the regulatory climate there remains far more permissive, said Whitehouse, who is now president of Cyan Environmental Group, a consulting firm.

“Mexico has neither the regulations nor the capacity to make sure that lead is recycled in a way that protects human health,” he said.

The result: Americans, while seeking to eliminate an environmental problem at home, are exporting contamination abroad, to a region less capable of defending itself, charge Whitehouse and other legal and environmental experts.

“I’ve been in facilities that look as modern as those in the United States from the outside,” Whitehouse said, “but they just don’t follow the same rules.”

The Eléctrica Automotriz Omega plant, a low-slung factory with twin smokestacks, employs several dozen workers who say they earn about $13 for a 12-hour shift. Located in the Monterrey suburb of Doctor Gonzales, the plant melts down battery lead into ingots that help make new batteries at a facility in the nearby town of Pesqueria, according to several employees.

On occasion, workers say, the company has bought used U.S. batteries directly from dealers in Laredo, Tex., where they are stacked by the thousands on pallets for shipping.

Municipal officials in Doctor Gonzalez concede that the oversight of the Omega plant is less than rigorous. As one of their most prominent companies, Omega has a lot of influence, said Roman Eden Peña Esparza, an environmental inspector for the municipality.

“We do an inspection, but it’s not very strict,” he said. “The municipality is in agreement with the company.”

Soil samples taken by The Post at four locations around the Omega plant, including near residents’ houses, were analyzed by a laboratory at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. The results showed lead contamination ranging from 40 to 400 times higher than naturally occurring lead levels, said Martin Soto Jimenez, a professor who conducted the testing.

“The concentrations of lead are very elevated,” he said.

An Omega employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was worried about getting fired, said the plant is old and not well maintained. “It’s always a mess inside. It’s never clean,” the employee said.

Officials at the plant’s parent company, Acumuladores Omega, did not respond to several requests for an interview. The company website says the firm is “committed to protecting the environment.”

Current and former employees said the company does test for lead, but workers aren’t given documentation of the test results and think that Omega’s doctors play down lead exposure. Employees are instructed to shower during the workday, and before entering the cafeteria, they receive a hand spray that is supposed to change color if contaminants remain.

Both employees and nearby residents complain about the lead and toxins they believe are pumped out of the plant’s smokestacks. Residents say they suffer chronic headaches and bone pain and that pets and livestock fail to reproduce or drop dead without warning.

San Juana Leticia, who works at a tiny convenience store across the street from the plant, hears the workers talk about their health issues. “The majority are sick,” she said. “Many don’t walk well.”

Gonzalez registered a blood-lead level of 56 parts per billion at a time when he said company doctors insisted that his level was between 30 and 33. If he could find another job, he would leave.

“When I sit, it’s a battle to get back up,” he said. “Inside the company, there’s a culture that everything’s okay. But it’s all bad.”