Do you remember Nick Naylor, the chief lobbyist for “Big Tobacco” from THANK YOU FOR SMOKING ironic novel by Christopher Buckley?

Nick is the best in the business. In his own words, “Michael Jordan plays ball. Charlie Manson kills people. I talk.” Naylor’s best friends are lobbyists for “Big Alcohol” and “Big Firearms.” They jokingly call themselves the “Merchants of Death.” It’s been 15 years since the movie’s release, and this club may not hold its regular meetings, but it certainly is still here! I think we all could name some companies belonging to this club. Here’s my candidate for the “Merchants of Death”– Lead Acid Batteries Manufacturers.

Where do you find lead?

It has been a few decades since lead was banned from gasoline, and later from paint and water pipes. The World Health Organization has published comprehensive research about the health hazards of lead, which underlines especially long-lasting consequences of lead poisoning for kids.

US public organizations are successfully fighting lead, which can still be found today in older houses, firearms ammo, some hobby items, and even toys. There are programs to fund the evaluation of lead hazards and removal of lead-containing materials from homes, schools, public facilities, and workplaces. Green and Healthy Homes Initiative is a good example. Center for Biological Diversity supported by scientists from Harvard, Cornell, Rutgers and other universities suggests “overwhelming evidence for the toxic effects of lead in humans and wildlife” and campaigns for getting the lead out of ammo, fishing accessories, etc. The Lead Poisoning Attorneys are on the lookout for the violators of housing regulations of lead paint replacement, and ready to start a class action.

With a healthy amount of public attention, one gets a feeling that the risk is mitigated and the problem is naturally going away together with the old houses and their pipes and paint.

This is what you need to know. Forget the paints, pipes, bullets, and toys – around 85% of the total global consumption of lead is for the production of lead-acid batteries (International Lead Association, 2017). They are not going away, on the contrary, lead-acid battery manufacturers are reporting increasing sales volumes and boasting optimistic forecasts for the years to come. Their optimism is based mainly on the increasing demand for energy storage in homes and uninterrupted energy sources for certain medical devices, IT, and the communication industry. In other words, hardly have we removed lead from our homes when it sneaks its way back into the modern houses, hospitals, and workplaces!

Marketing of lead-acid batteries.

How is that even possible? According to Kevin Morgan, Chief Executive of Battery Council International, a trade association “formed to promote the interests of the international battery industry” in Chicago, USA, “BCI’s reserve fund is now nearly four times the size it was in 2017” (it was $3.5 million in 2017). Over $10 million a year is spent on lobbying and PR campaigns to present lead-acid batteries as environmentally friendly because a) these batteries are 99% recyclable, and b) they stop and start car engines at traffic lights, saving gas and reducing total exhaust. Thank you very much.

BCI does a very good job! The earlier attempts in the USA to stop lead-acid advance by Ecology Center and Environmental Defense in 2003 were disputed by BCI and successfully forgotten. Last year European Union has shelved an essential ban on the use of lead compounds in batteries. In California, USA, lead-acid batteries have made it to the Toxic Substance Control 2018-20 3 year priority products work plan, this is the list of seven product categories the Department shall evaluate for the risk they present. We are now in 2020, and it looks unlikely that any action will be taken to prevent the spread of lead acid batteries in California.

Unfortunately, BCI is mostly concerned about building a good image of lead-acid batteries. When it comes to the widely praised recycling at 99% rate, the industry is not doing so well. In fact, it does terrible things.

Used lead-acid batteries recycling risks.

Elevated levels of lead have long been documented in the air and soil around the Exide plant, located just southeast of downtown Los Angeles, which recycled 11 million car batteries a year and released 3,500 tons of lead over 30 years before it closed in March 2015 as part of a legal settlement for hazardous waste violations. But even after 5 years, lead is still found in baby teeth of the children living in the nearby areas.

In 2018 the residents of the City of Industry were protesting against the 25% capacity increase of Quemetco’s facility, the only lead-smelting plant remaining in Southern California. And their concerns are well justified – even though Quemetco installed a special air emissions cleansing system, and its furnaces were equipped with high-efficiency particulate air filtration systems, in May 2017 a power outage affected pollution control equipment, causing an excessive release of arsenic and lead, reported by South Coast Air Quality Management District.

We may wish that the people of the City of Industry finally manage to oust the last lead smelting facility out of California, but the problem does not go away. With the increasing lead-acid battery production, the demand for recycling will continue to nurture smelting plants with unhealthy margins.

According to the World Health Organization Report of 2017, used lead-acid batteries recycling is pushed out from wealthier states to countries like Senegal, Viet-Nam, Dominican Republic, Mexico, and others, where the recycling regulations may not be strict enough or poorly enforced. The results include the spikes of gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neurological, hematological, and other diseases. Lead is poisoning soil, air, food, and water. Quoting the Conclusions chapter from the WHO report – “lead mining uses large amounts of energy and environmental resources, particularly water. It causes significant environmental degradation and loss of habitat as well as generating large amounts of contaminated waste tailings”.

Lead acid battery technology is 100 years old, it contributed to humanity’s technological progress no less than the invention of a steam engine. And like a steam engine, it needs to give way to more powerful, economical, and effective solutions.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2019.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2019 was awarded jointly to John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino “for the development of lithium-ion battery.” This lightweight, rechargeable, and a powerful battery are now used in everything from mobile phones to laptops and electric vehicles. It can also store significant amounts of energy from solar and wind power, making possible a fossil fuel-free society.

The prize came in 2019 after these batteries have taken the world by storm, facilitating electronic devices and electric vehicle markets’ growth for the last decade. In the material handling industry, Li-ion batteries are replacing lead acid because they are more economical,  environmentally cleaner, more powerful, and more dependable. Li-ion batteries last twice as long and bring larger operators a 20-40% decrease in the total cost of ownership.

And this is only the beginning! The opportunities for repurposing larger Li-ion batteries further improve the utilization rate. At the end of its useful life, larger batteries used in vehicles, industrial trucks, and other heavy equipment can still serve as energy storage in homes and workplaces for many years without posing a threat to the people and habitats. There is an increasing demand for recycling too. Right now dozens of scientists in research groups in the US, Europe, and China are working on the recycling solutions for Li-ion batteries, and the new plants are claiming 50% of the materials recycling rate at this early stage.

Companies are also enforcing ethical business standards in mining raw materials like cobalt. Volvo announced the use of blockchain technology to ensure the transparency of the cobalt origin the company is using for its electric cars.

What can we do?

So why lead acid batteries continue to spread, even with the more economical, powerful, and safer alternative? The answer is simple – financial gains are more important to the industry incumbents than public safety. The new “Merchants of Death” are well funded and try to sweep under the carpet the evidence of the harm they do, and hush the voices of protesters and scientists.

While there is no doubt the new (Li-ion) technology will eventually replace hazardous lead acid, humanity will still have to deal with millions of lead acid batteries, already existing and those planned to be produced in the next years. The industry must wake up to this reality and take action, and public pressure is one thing that can help.