MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Lead poisoning predicted to rise in developing countries

Published by MAC on 2009-11-23
Source: OK International

SAN FRANCISCO, California - Widespread lead poisoning will result from the planned distribution of a billion computers to developing countries by technology companies and charities, according to a new study.

"The lead from batteries needed to power these computers will result in environmental contamination and harmful exposures unless some common-sense safeguards are taken," said Perry Gottesfeld, co-author of the study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, December 2009.

Our research concludes that emissions from the lead batteries needed to power these computers will exceed 1,250,000 tons in the next decade," added Mr. Gottesfeld, who is the Executive Director of Occupational Knowledge international (OK International) of San Francisco.

"We are alarmed because that's equivalent to four times the weight of the Empire State Building in lead emissions that will be released in these developing countries," he said.

Independent market projections indicate that one billion computers are to be sold, leased, or donated by computer companies including Intel, Microsoft, and AMD, and philanthropic groups including the Gates Foundation, over the next six years. These companies and foundations are targeting rural areas of developing countries primarily in Asia and Africa for expansion.

"Ironically these efforts to narrow the ‘digital divide' will increase lead emissions and off set any gains in educational achievement unless efforts are taken to reduce emissions from battery manufacturing and recycling" says Gottesfeld.

The study, titled "Plans to Distribute the Next Billion Computers by 2015 Creates Pollution Risk", explains that India alone is expected to gain 150 million new PC users by 2015 and most will utilize lead batteries for primary and/or backup power.

China which is expected to gain the highest number of new computer users has experienced several mass lead poisoning incidents in recent months from lax manufacturing and recycling standards.

"This situation is completely avoidable if the companies and charities involved in promoting computers purchase batteries from companies that meet environmental standards and incorporate a system for the collection of used batteries and proper recycling." says Gottesfeld.

Christopher Cherry, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Tennessee says, "Our study shows that plans to increase computer use in these countries can backfire because excessive lead emissions rates from battery manufacturing and recycling are impacting the educational development of millions of children."

The authors used third party marketing projections and electricity availability data to model the lead pollution likely to result from the adoption of this technology.

Cherry says, "The pollution created by lead batteries used for computers and Internet connectivity will greatly exceed that presented by electronic waste being improperly recycled in China and other countries."

The authors recommend that computer distribution programs arrange for lead battery collection and promote the purchase of lead batteries from manufacturers that have an environmental certification demonstrating that they meet specific emission targets, occupational limits, and product stewardship goals.

Lead poisoning causes irreversible neurological damage in children resulting in reduced school performance and lower test scores resulting in a decline in lifetime earnings. Adults are also impacted as lead is linked to hypertension, anemia, reproductive disorders, and other adverse neurological outcomes.

OK International is a San Francisco based non-profit organization dedicated to improving public health in developing countries through innovative strategies to reduce exposures to industrial pollutants:

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