While eliminating lead in paint and fuel has had successes, the story is different with respect to lead-acid batteries.
Since lead-acid batteries are a cheaper solution than lithium batteries in developing countries, incentives to lower the cost of alternatives and other economic policies must be explored.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm (BRS) Conventions convened a webinar on advancing work on lead and lessons from the work on lead in gasoline, lead in paint, and used lead-acid batteries. The event provided the space to highlight global successes, best practices, experiences, and lessons learned.
Maria Neira, WHO, said to urgently act to eliminate lead exposure, sources of exposure must first be identified. With an estimated one million deaths from lead poisoning per year, she said many more suffer long-lasting effects, including children.
Rolph Payet, Executive Secretary, BRS Conventions, said the Basel Convention recently updated its technical guidelines on the environmentally sound management of lead-acid batteries, which it has been working on since 1999.
Maria-Christina Zucca, UNEP, said lead is at the juncture of health and the environment, and we need partnerships, highlighting the example of the Global Alliance to Eliminate Lead Paint.
Jane Akumu, UNEP, presented lessons learned from eliminating lead in petrol, which was achieved through the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV). She said when the partnership was formed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, 117 countries still used lead in petrol, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Lesley Onyon, WHO, said the knowledge of hazards of lead goes back to Roman times. She highlighted the launch of the SAICM/Global Environment Facility (GEF) project in 2018 on Global Best Practices on Emerging Chemical Policy Issues of Concern under the Strategic Alliance for International Chemicals Management (SAICM), which initially focused on getting at least 40 countries to restrict the use of lead in paint and far surpassed this target. She said 91 countries now have lead paint laws, but more remains to be done.
Francesca Cenni, BRS Secretariat, said while eliminating lead in paint and fuel has had successes, the story is different with respect to lead-acid batteries, which, she said, are continuing to be produced and used at alarming rates, particularly in China and the US. She said the batteries are used to help achieve climate goals and as part of the energy transition away from fossil fuels for use in electric vehicles and solar panels, for example. Noting 78-99% of waste lead-acid batteries can be recycled, she explained informal collection and recycling practices, including sub-standard smelting operations, are a significant source of lead exposure. She also indicated that since lead-acid batteries are a cheaper solution than lithium batteries in developing countries, incentives to lower the cost of alternatives and other economic policies must be explored.
A moderated panel discussion included representatives from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), and the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution. They discussed challenges in closing the gap in lead in paint, including the need for maintaining momentum on the issue, more resources, and increased enforcement, transparency, and control of trade in lead paint.
On what strategies would best upscale action on waste lead-acid batteries, participants mentioned, among others, the need to: link the climate and Basel agreements and obligations under them; and ensure standards and mechanisms are in place to phase out recycling in the informal sector.
On what can be done to address the entirety of lead pollution sources, one participant said we should focus on children and ending childhood lead poisoning as a long-term agenda, noting as many as 800 million children have dangerously high lead levels in their blood. Lead exposure in children in Indonesia was also highlighted, where: eight million children have elevated blood lead levels; knowledge about lead exposure is low; and national guidelines for managing lead exposure are being developed and piloted.
The event convened on 25 October 2022, during the tenth International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week (ILPPW) that was held from 23-29 October under the theme ‘Say No to Lead Poisoning.” [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]