Lead Recycling Exacts High Price for Health

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

In the West African nation of Senegal, an informal recycling industry has poisoned children and left a neighborhood severely polluted. Residents caused the contamination by pulling apart car batteries to extract the lead. The government is now cleaning up the site, but many of the children will never be the same. Jori Lewis reports.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Over the past few years, charitable efforts that focus on children's health have grown. Philanthropists are donating billions of dollars to the cause, providing medicines and vaccines to protect the world's poorest kids form infectious diseases like malaria and polio. But there are other threats to the health of children that don't receive as much attention. Reporter Jori Lewis brings us the story of one such threat. It caused widespread poisoning of children in West Africa, in a poor town outside Dakar, Senegal.

JORI LEWIS: A woman named Seynabou Barry lives in a house by the railroad tracks in a neighborhood called Ngagne Diaw. One day a couple of years ago her toddler son, Mamadou, got sick.

TRANSLATOR (FOR SEYNABOU BARRY, SPEAKING IN WOLOF): It just happened suddenly. He started to throw up and we took him to the hospital.

LEWIS: When he got there, he started to have seizures. And then he died. She said the doctors didn't know why. But other children in the neighborhood, all infants and toddlers, they were dying, too. Five dead children became ten, and then became fifteen. They were dying almost every week. And so people started to wonder if something was going on in the neighborhood in Ngagne Diaw. Local doctors looked into it. Amadou Diouf is with the Senegalese Health Ministry.

INTERPRETER (FOR AMADOU DIOUF): They investigated and they ruled out malaria. They ruled out epilepsy.

LEWIS: They also ruled out cholera and meningitis. And finally they went to the site, to Ngagne Diaw. And they found the answer. It was lead. There was lead everywhere. Lead in slag piles; in peoples' homes; in the sand that blew through town. And it was in the children. Many had blood lead levels that indicated severe lead poisoning. The lead mostly came from one source: car batteries. For years a group of local women had been pulling apart old batteries to sell the lead inside. Kine Dior started doing it 20 years ago, when a man showed her how.

TRANSLATOR (FOR KINE DIOR, SPEAKING IN WOLOF): He showed the women who didn't have jobs, how to do this work. He told us to go look around for some batteries, crack them open to get at the lead inside, and he said he would share the profit with us.

LEWIS: The women melted down the metal inside the batteries and recovered the lead. They poured the waste metal out into the sand. Dior says it was worth the effort.

TRANSLATOR (FOR KINE DIOR, SPEAKING IN WOLOF): I spent 25,000 francs on batteries and got back 50,000 francs for the lead.

LEWIS: Dior is an expansive, middle-aged woman whose concrete home is crowded with heavy furniture and flowery drapes. She says the business allowed her to provide for her family, and do it well. Dior has several children. She won't tell me how many because she says it's bad luck. But none of her children have ever had any problems, she says. None of them have died. An environmental group called the Blacksmith Institute cleans up toxic sites like this all over the world. Meredith Block is the director.

MEREDITH BLOCK: The tragedy of this community is really representative of a larger issue that we're seeing in almost every developing country as the price of lead has gone up as we're seeing more cars on the road and more people in urban environments.

LEWIS: Block says this kind of simple car battery recycling is dangerous enough. But the people of Ngagne Diaw started doing something even more risky in 2007. That's when the market price of lead climbed so high that the waste lead they had dumped into the sand was now valuable. There was money in that dirt. So they dug it up and started to sift lead from the sand. People stockpiled sacks of lead in their courtyards and in holes under their homes.

TRANSLATER INTERPRETER (FOR MBAYE DIOP): During this time, we noticed that there was a rush on lead.

LEWIS: Mbaye Diop works with a local environmental group.

TRANSLATER INTERPRETER (FOR MBAYE DIOP): Everyone was working on this. There were women, teenagers and children. The women did the sifting, and it was the men who put it in bags.

LEWIS: The result, according to Senegalese health authorities, was a total of at least 18 dead children, and lots of sick ones who will never be the same. High blood lead levels can lead to severe neurological and developmental difficulties in children. Mbaye Diop introduces me to a boy, a three-year-old, who Diop told me had lots of problems.


LEWIS: When the boy looked at me, his eyes rolled back in his head and he moans.


LEWIS: Mbaye Diop tells me the boy has seizures and he can't talk ? he doesn't know how. This boy and others have received treatment for lead poisoning; and many were, at least for some time, recuperating at a center outside of town. But eventually they had to come back home, back to Ngagne Diaw. And that means that they continue to be re-exposed, though at lower levels than before. Senegal's Ministry of the Environment is cleaning up Ngagne Diaw. Clean-up coordinator Assane Diop says they removed the most contaminated material for the neighborhood, but there is still a lot of work to do.

ASSANE DIOP: Now we need to decontaminate all the site.

LEWIS: I wander with him over to a large field that was one of the areas where the women used to work. The field is full of stagnating pools of water, plastic bottles and bags, and a few wandering sheep. I ask him about this particular site.

DIOP: This site have not been cleaned, so far.

LEWIS: Oh. But this site has not ?

DIOP: We plan to clean it up.

LEWIS: Not been cleaned at all?

DIOP: No. No. No.

LEWIS: He says his team will tackle it in the next phase of the cleanup, which he hopes will begin in the next few months. They'll also scrub down most of the homes in the area, going from house to house. Money, he says, has been the barrier. The Environment Ministry relied heavily on technical help from the environmental group, the Blacksmith Institute. Again, its director, Meredith Block.

BLOCK: It's very difficult to find funding for this kind of work. There is no international agency that the government of Senegal could run to and say, ?Do you have $200,000 for us so that we can, you know, help this community?? There's no fund for toxics like this.

LEWIS: For now, she says, the main focus is to stop contamination like this from happening again. Many of the women who recycled batteries in Ngagne Diaw have sworn off working with lead. They've started to sell fish or clothes or house wares. The Ministry of the Environment even hired some of them to clean contaminated homes. And the government has been trying to find some sort of factory or business for them. But it hasn't started yet. Kine Dior, the woman who had been gathering lead for twenty years, says she's not happy about giving up the business.

TRANSLATOR (FOR KINE DIOR, SPEAKING IN WOLOF): Right now, they stopped us from collecting the lead. It's the only thing we know how to do, and now they tell us to stop?!?

LEWIS: Well, she says, they'll stop ? for now. But if they don't find anything else, they'll go back to it. For The World, I'm Jori Lewis, Dakar, Senegal.