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Improper disposal of used car battery endangers health, environment

Improper disposal of used car battery endangers health, environment

UNUSABLE car batteries, also known as Used Lead Acid Battery (ULAB), are classified as hazardous waste under the Basel Convention.

The Basel Convention is an international treaty that was designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations, and specifically to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries.

It does not, however, address the movement of radioactive waste. It facilitates the Environmentally Sound Management (ESM) of hazardous waste and provides a structure if trans-boundary movement is required.

Non-regulated, informal (“backyard” or “cottage”) recycling practices occur in many countries including Tanzania and have resulted in lead exposure and poisoning, with young children being particularly at risk. This practice is sometimes carried out in urban areas with high population densities, meaning that a recycling operation has the potential to affect a large number of people.

The work may be carried out by small group of people around their places; especially children often assisting with dismantling the batteries and washing components.

Because the recycling process is done with little knowledge of the toxicity of lead, and is conducted under poor conditions of safety, health and environmental controls, informal recycling is particularly likely to result in environmental contamination and human exposure.

Manually breaking up the batteries releases lead particles and lead oxide dust, which are a source of lead exposure to the workers.

The dust and particles also settle in the surrounding soil and may be blown to more distant areas, contaminating the wider environment and becoming a source of exposure to the community, according to 2003 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The toxic effects of lead are wide-ranging and affect almost all body systems.

Acute lead poisoning from a single exposure is relatively rare and chronic poisoning is more common; however, the clinical features of poisoning are similar in both cases. The presenting signs and symptoms are very variable in both adults and children and may include, among others, gastrointestinal, Cardiovascular, Neurological and Hematological effects.

On the part of economic impacts from lead exposure are direct and indirect costs. Direct costs include those associated with screening and the medical care of acute and chronic lead poisoning, as well as the provision of specials education, and managing juvenile delinquency and other criminal behaviours. Indirect costs reflect the economic burden on society from a variety of factors including reduced intelligence and the consequent reduction in economic productivity and tax revenue.

As Tanzania is a signatory to the Basel Convention, it follows that the Guidelines are directing those individuals and companies involved in the disposal or recycling of hazardous waste, such as ULAB to comply with the procedures set out in the Basel Convention Technical Guidelines.

In 2013 the Government published Guidelines for the Management of Hazardous Waste that included a classified list of the hazardous waste materials and their sources.

The Guidelines emphasize that when disposing of hazardous waste, it is important to “take all practicable steps to ensure that hazardous wastes or other wastes are managed in a manner which will protect human health and the environment against adverse effects which may result from such wastes… and this is a direct quotation from the Basel Convention In 2019 the government updated the Hazardous Waste provisions of the Environmental Management Regulations, with certain aspects applicable to ULAB handling, temporary storage, transportation, treatments, including recycling and licensing for those companies engaged in such activities.

The Regulations also outline the approach to enforcement of the regulations, and public awareness and education.

There is no doubt that Tanzania has a comprehensive legal framework that is consistent with standards applicable to countries in Europe and North America and the laws can be applied and used to control the management of ULAB. At every stage in the recycling process there are measures that can be taken to prevent or reduce the release of lead.

According to the Pure Earth Country Coordinator, Mr Abdallah Mkindi, to minimize lead exposure and environmental contamination, lead battery recycling should only be conducted at adequately equipped and regulated facilities that have the requisite engineering controls, trained staff, provision of protective equipment, and environmental and occupational monitoring.

The required personal protective equipment will vary according to the specific tasks being carried out and the concomitant risk of exposure to lead and other hazards may include: full-body coveralls, apron, gloves, hard hats, shoes, respirators, face shields or vented goggles, as directed by the Occupational Safety and Health Authority (OSHA).

Enforcement of the control measures described above requires a national policy to be put in place for the sound management of used lead-acid batteries that encompasses standards for collection, recycling, emissions, and occupational safety, according to the UNEP.

The UNEP argues that relevant regulatory measures include land use planning laws concerning the location of secondary smelters (e.g. distance from residential areas), environmental standards governing emissions and discharges, and occupational standards for workplace and worker monitoring. The recycling needs to be carried out with care to minimize environmental contamination and protect the health of workers, communities and the receiving environment.

While much of the responsibility for ensuring the sound management of used lead-acid batteries lies with the environment sector, the health sector must also play its part. This includes ensuring that health-care practitioners have training on, and resources for, the diagnosis and management of lead prisoning and educating local communities on the health hazards of lead.

Recently, the Pure Earth organisation organised dissemination workshop in Dar es Salaam, involving different stakeholders. The meeting was aimed at discussing policy and strategy recommendations on the ESM of Waste Lead-Acid Batteries (WLABs) in Tanzania to develop a guidance manual on ESM of WLABs in Africa.

In collaboration with a committee composed of representatives from government agencies, the public and private sector, and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), both documents were completed in September 2021.

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Author: BENARD LUGONGO

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