In India, solar power is a rapidly developing industry. The country expanded its installed solar power capacity by 233 times as of 31 March, 2020. For advocates of clean energy and climate change activists, these initiatives seemed like good news. But health researchers are concerned that this push for solar power in developing countries like India can cause a side-effect of spikes in lead poisoning.
Unlike the U.S., U.K. and Denmark, a large portion of solar panel installations in India’s remote rural section is not connected to the national electricity network. In these areas, they continue to be heavily reliant on lead-acid batteries for storing unused solar power. The situation is similar in sub-Saharan Africa, where grid connectivity is infeasible. More than 600 million people still lack access to electricity and rely on solar power because lead-acid batteries are the main form of energy storage available in the market.
And in most developing countries, the recycling of lead-acid batteries is not adequately regulated by officials and any accident can results in a lead leak into the environment.
“When a battery becomes old about 5% of the mass of lead used to produce lead-acid batteries gets released into the environment, in the form of lead Sulfate,” said Amod Pokhrel, lecturer at the University of California. The impacts of prolonged lead exposure include higher risks of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure and can also cause damage to the kidneys, reproductive system, and central nervous system.
And while for adults, lead poisoning is one of the most significant hazards to occupational health, for children’s health, the risks are even higher. According to a study in China and India, that figure rises to 34% and 22%, respectively. Out of nearly 95,000 children in China, 24% had blood lead levels of 10 micrograms per decilitre, 16% higher than the global average. Lead gets stored in the teeth and bones, where it remains for decades.
Currently, India has 550 authorized lead battery recycling plants, but only 40% of these recyclers are operating at half of their capacity. When lead-acid batteries reach the end of their life cycle after 2 to 5 years, they have to be recycled. But the crude method used by informal sectors for lead recovery could potentially result in millions of tons of lead being released into the environment.
Apart from lead batteries used in solar installations, the batteries are used for vehicles, telecom towers and computer servers, making the situation more complex. To deal with this, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forest implemented a rule mandating that manufacturers of lead batteries should collect at least 90% of used batteries sold and that used batteries only be sold to registered recyclers.
The handling of lead during different lead-acid battery recycling processes should be done so that the lead exposure should be minimum to the workers. The workers should be provided with a proper working environment like sufficient working space and proper ventilation. Measures should be taken to restrict or control any source of lead dust or fumes by applying proper technical control measures in every step of the lead-acid battery recycling process.
The workers who have had long years on the job could be shifted to a less exposed section to limit the exposure. Workers should be made aware of undertaking preventive measures to use and maintain personal hygiene. Periodic estimation of blood lead level and examination of manifestations attributable to lead toxicity should be undertaken for early detection and preventive measures because these people are just trying to make a living.