Unmitigated Good? Considering the Health Impacts of Lead-Acid Battery Use in Sub-Saharan Africa
by David Hamburger
Off-grid energy options such as photovoltaic systems (PV) offer potential solutions to Africa’s energy challenges. However, the batteries in these systems, and similar models used in cars and stationary power supplies, carry a high risk of lead poisoning if handled improperly. In sub-Saharan Africa, the informal discarding and recycling of used lead acid batteries (ULABs) has repeatedly been linked to toxic levels of lead in residents’ blood and in the surrounding environment. The economic losses due to lead poisoning have been estimated at 4% of African GDP. Despite these risks, the impact of growth in the sub-Saharan automotive and PV sectors on lead poisoning has gone largely unaddressed.
Backyard Danger: Informal Lead Recycling
An estimated 1.2 million tonnes of lead-acid batteries are discarded in Africa each year. Much of the lead from these batteries is recycled in informal, unregulated recycling centers. In backyards and larger facilities, the cases are pried open, lead-saturated acid is poured out (often directly into the soil), and the lead smelted down and formed into ingots for resale. The WHO has highlighted the “mass lead poisoning” resulting from this ULAB recycling process in Africa, particularly for children living and studying in the vicinity of informal facilities. The location of these centers in or near highly populated slums only increases the impact of soil and air lead pollution on the neighboring population. Scientific studies of these health effects are striking – revealing blood lead levels over 10 times the CDC threshold, for example, in one study of children in Dakar slums. A 2016 studyfound lead levels of 2,300 µg/ft2in Nairobi schools near recycling facilities– compared with 46 µg/ft2 in a control region without ULAB facilities and EPA guidance of a 40 µg/ft2maximum. Low public health awareness and the often-covert nature of informal smelting present further challenges to tackling the growing lead-poisoning threat posed by ULABs.
The automotive sector plays a large role in the generation of ULABs for recycling, as used batteries reach the end of their 2-3 year lifespan and are replaced. The chart below shows how the growth in vehicle penetration in Africa translates to lead that must be recycled or discarded. In even the most conservative growth case – about 2/3 the current average rate of vehicle penetration – the sub-Saharan passenger automotive sector will produce around 300 million kilograms of lead battery waste after 2020.
Sources: OICA (Automobiles in Use), Oko Institut (Battery Weight), Author’s Projections
Quantifying the precise impact of this amount of discarded lead on health is difficult. However, applying the University of Washington’s Global Health Database (GHDx) estimate of lead-related premature deaths and years lived with disability offers a rough guide to the correlation between growing lead exposure and the lead-related burden of disease. This metric suggests that lead from the automotive sector could be responsible for 1.15 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) in the near term.
Cheap and Widespread: ULABs in PV-Systems
Solar systems also comprise a major source of ULABs in Africa. According to the IEA’s Energy Access 2030 plan, the most intensive investment in energy supply needs to be made in sub-Saharan Africa, and the majority of new energy supply (58%) must come from mini-grid and off-grid PV systems. Despite advances in battery technology, such as the growing market share of lithium ion batteries, lead-acid remains the cheapest alternative in most cases. Major PV system manufacturers working to meet the 2030 aims, such as Mobisol and BBoXX, rely on lead-acid batteries similar to car batteries for their popular solar home system units. Home solar systems therefore stand to contribute significantly to the lead-induced burden of disease in sub-Saharan Africa in the next five to ten years. In Ethiopia, for example, the solar-heavy and World Bank-funded National Electrification Plan is likely to result in an additional 25 million kilograms of lead battery waste after 2020, corresponding to nearly 100,000 DALYs.
Off-grid solar technologies, increased passenger vehicle proliferation with rising income, and a more constant power supply all promise benefits for sub-Saharan Africa. These advances, however, require further consideration of downstream health and environmental impacts of both markets’ reliance on lead acid batteries. Policymakers and local customers would therefore do well to recognize, better study, and prepare early for the potentially significant implications of these developments on the incidence of lead-related morbidity and mortality.
David Hamburger is an M.A. student concentrating in International Law and Organizations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He gratefully acknowledges the input of Professor Johannes Urpelainen and classmates in the Energy Poverty course in guiding this analysis.