Health Ministry Highlights Danger of Backyard Smelting Operations


The Ministry of Health is concerned that there might be renewed interest in backyard smelting operations, which could see persons melting used lead acid batteries to build new batteries to sell.
This concern is rooted in the fact that smelting operations have been long associated with lead poisoning, especially in children.
Last year there were five cases of lead poisoning associated with a backyard smelting operation. Additionally, all the children belonged to one family.
From 1985 to 1990, the number of cases of lead poisoning increased from 76 cases to 189 cases. The figure has since declined to less than six cases in the past five years.
According to Hydda McPherson, Occupational Health and Safety Specialist at the Ministry of Health, there was anecdotal evidence gathered from various communities in the parishes of Kingston, St. James and St. Catherine to fuel the concern.
He also informed JIS News that Kingston and St. Andrew, in particular, had the most battery repair shops and was therefore the place to find the most accumulation of used lead acid batteries.
Mr. McPherson said that the impending launch of the Used Lead Acid Battery (ULAB) Project by the Ministry of Land and Environment was timely, given the concern and the possible increase in the number of cases of lead poisoning, particularly in children.
“The aim of the project is to reduce the availability of the used lead acid batteries in communities, because if people cannot get the raw material, chances are that they will not revisit battery smelting operations, which can be financially attractive,” he said.
The project, spanning a period of six months, will involve the islandwide collection and subsequent export of used lead acid batteries for recycling to destinations such as Israel and Trinidad and Tobago.A multi-sectoral effort, the project will be assisted by government entities such as National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA), National Environmental and Planning Agency (NEPA), the Ministries of Health and Transport and Works, and Jamaica Customs.
Additional assistance will come from private sector entities, which are mainly representatives from the lead acid battery sector.
The types of batteries that will be collected include not only lead acid batteries used in automobiles, but also those in cell phone towers and in uninterrupted power supplies (UPS).
Elaborating on the impact of the smelting operations on the environment and public health, Mr. McPherson said that batteries contained a large quantity of lead, which when not disposed of in an environmentally sound manner, caused contamination of the soil.
He also said that the soil remained polluted years after the operations closed at any location. “This is why the problem of used lead acid batteries is such a concern to the Ministry,” he reiterated.
Children, he noted, were particularly vulnerable because they were more likely to play in dirt and place their hands and other objects in their mouths, thereby increasing the opportunity for soil ingestion.The effects of exposure to lead included impaired mental and physical development, which can cause poor academic performance and deficits in motor skills. As for the cost of treating lead poisoning, Mr. McPherson said that it was expensive and a burden on the health system. Treatment, which was dependent on the severity of the case, he added, could run into thousands of dollars, considering that hospital stays could be for more than two months. In addition, drugs have to be specially flown in to treat patients.

JIS Social