New rules on recycling old batteries to protect health, environment -- UN agency

New rules on recycling old batteries to protect health, environment -- UN agency

A group of experts working for a key international treaty on hazardous wastes has finalized a set of guidelines promoting the environmentally sound recycling of spent lead-acid batteries – an important step in the efforts to reduce the global risk of lead poisoning, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

“Since ancient times, lead has brought us great benefits but also innumerable poisonings, particularly amongst workers and children,” said Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP. He was reacting to the development of the 64-page technical guidelines completed last week in Geneva by the technical group of the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal. The Convention, which was adopted in March 1989 under UNEP's auspices, has 150 members.

"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,"Mr. Toepfer said. "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."

In many developing countries, retired batteries are still broken manually using an axe. This is extremely dangerous to the workers, UNEP said. 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.

According to UNEP, the guidelines will now go forward for final adoption to the sixth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention (COP 6), scheduled for 9-13 December 2002 in Geneva.