India uses more solar energy, but carries major risk

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“When a battery ages, lead comes out as lead sulfate and corrodes,” said Amod Pokhrel, professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health. If particles from these corroded batteries are found on the floors of nearby houses, says Pokhrel, young children could be exposed to them.Child behavior problems such as reduced attention span and antisocial tendencies have been linked to early exposure to lead. And studies have long linked prolonged lead exposure to developmental delays, poor school performance, lower IQ scores, loss of appetite, weight loss and irritability. The University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) has found that in 2015, lead exposure was responsible for 12.4% of the global burden of developmental disabilities.

Awareness of The potential link between increased lead contamination and off-grid solar projects is due to a handful of studies over the past decade. Perry Gottesfeld, executive director of Occupational Knowledge International, a research organization that identifies and monitors exposures to hazardous materials, said that solar programs often do not take into account where batteries are made and where they are recycled .

In a 2011 study published in the journal Energy policy, Gottesfeld and co-author Christopher Cherry at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, noted that in countries with advanced infrastructure, about 5% of the lead mass used to produce lead-acid batteries is released to the environment. In China and India, this figure reaches 34 and 22% respectively

“There is a failure on the part of those who promote these panels,” said Gottesfeld, “including the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, even the United Nations agencies that advocate and fund these systems. None of these programs, to his knowledge, said Gottesfeld, “require that lead-acid batteries be recovered by the supplier or manufacturer of these systems. And it’s a huge problem in most of the world. Officials from the World Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation (which have funded various solar energy projects in India) did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

According to a 2013 study of nearly 95,000 children in China, 24% had blood lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter, 16% higher than the world average. The lead level in the blood of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is 5 micrograms per deciliter.

Lead is stored in teeth and bones, where it remains for decades. During pregnancy, this lead is released into the blood and affects the development of the fetus. These growing problems are not limited to Asia. In a 2018 study published in the journal Environmental research, for example, Gottesfeld and his co-authors analyzed soil samples from 15 lead-acid battery recycling factories and a manufacturing site in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Mozambique, Tunisia, Tanzania and Cameroon. Forty-two percent of the samples taken outside of these facilities had lead levels above the United States Environmental Protection Agency standard for residential floors.

Experts worry that the informal sector is using crude lead recovery methods that could potentially lead to millions of tonnes of lead in the environment worldwide, particularly with the rapid expansion of solar installations in small developing communities. “When you talk about a solar panel and a lead-acid battery, of course, there are probably 1,000 or 10,000 times more lead in the battery than in the solar panel,” said Dustin Mulvaney, associate professor environmental studies at San José State University.

When lead-acid batteries reach the end of their life cycle after two to five years, adequate recycling plans are necessary to prevent lead pollution.

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