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Old American car batteries make Mexican workers sick


The removal of lead from car batteries, many of them from the US, at recycling plants in northern Mexico has caused high levels of lead contamination.

After returning home from his job at a car battery recycling plant in northern Mexico one afternoon in 2019, Azael Mateo González Ramírez said he felt dizzy, his bones ached and his throat was scratchy.

Then came the stomach pain, he said, followed by bouts of diarrhea.

The Monterrey plant where he worked handled used car batteries, many from the United States,

extracting lead

as part of the process.

González, 39, stacked the batteries near large containers of lead dust.

Medical tests, according to González, showed high levels of lead in his body;

Experts agree that no level of lead is safe and can cause neurological and gastrointestinal damage over time


Soil samples taken outside some of Monterrey's largest battery recycling plants revealed lead levels well above the legal limit in Mexico, according to a report.

Photo Alejandro Cegarra for The New York Times

His supervisor insisted that he keep working.

The city of Monterrey, a three-hour drive from Texas, has become the largest source of


car batteries from the United States, with shipments of used American batteries to Mexico growing steadily over the past decade, according to the Agency. United States Environmental Protection Agency.

The surge in batteries coming from the United States comes as a report released Monday found

significantly high levels of lead

at many facilities, leaving workers exposed to a toxic metal that poses serious risks to human health.

More than 75% of all used US batteries were exported to Mexico in 2021, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Photo Alejandro Cegarra for The New York Times

Soil samples taken outside six battery recycling plants in Monterrey in 2022 revealed lead levels well above the legal limit in Mexico, according to the report by Occupational Knowledge International, a nonprofit public health organization based in Mexico. San Francisco, and Casa Cem, a Mexican environmental group.

Although Mexican regulations stipulate that facilities must remove lead from contaminated soil and can be closed for violating environmental regulations, Mexican government records show that few plants have been closed in recent years.

Lax Mexican environmental laws and their even looser enforcement encourage U.S. companies to dump used car batteries in the country, where labor is cheaper and unions weaker, according to labor rights and occupational health experts. .

Workers at these plants are being poisoned day after day, often without even knowing it themselves," says Perry Gottesfeld, executive director of Occupational Knowledge International.

"They don't receive proper training, don't have the necessary equipment, and don't operate in facilities that have proper ventilation."

Workers at a battery recycling plant in Monterrey owned by the US company Clarios.

Soil samples taken outside two Clarios-owned battery recycling plants in Monterrey showed lead levels above the Mexican legal limit.

Photo Alejandro Cegarra for The New York Times

In the past 10 years, the number of car batteries shipped to Mexico from the United States has

grown by nearly 20%

, according to EPA records included in the study from both groups.

In 2021, more than 75% of all used US batteries were exported to that country, EPA records showed.

At recycling plants, lead is extracted from batteries, crushed, melted down, and turned into


that are used to make new batteries.

Commuters waited for public transportation in front of a grocery store near Monterrey.

Photo Alejandro Cegarra for The New York Times

The world's largest auto battery maker, Milwaukee-based Clarios, bought two plants in Monterrey in 2019, and the report found lead levels in the soil outside its facilities that were well above Mexico's legal limit of 800 parts per million.

(Samples in the report were tested and analyzed by an independent laboratory.)

At one Clarios facility, a soil sample showed lead levels of 15,000 parts per million, while at the other Clarios facility, a sample showed 3,800 parts per million lead.

Clarios closed its last car battery recycling plant in the United States, in South Carolina, in 2021, following a series of EPA fines for violations related to air pollution, hazardous waste and improper transport of lead batteries. .

Shipping batteries to Mexico

would save the company 25% in

recycling costs, according to a Clarios filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

"There's definitely cost savings if you don't have to worry about upgrading your facility to meet current US standards," Gottesfeld says.

A Clarios spokesperson said the company's facilities use "strict safety protocols and we provide our employees with state-of-the-art protective equipment."

"We work with local health, safety and environmental authorities to ensure that our facilities are not only compliant, but are a benchmark for our sector," spokeswoman Ana Margarita Garza-Villarreal said.

While working as a nurse at a recycling plant owned by Grupo Gonher, Elizabeth Coronado found elevated levels of lead in the blood of many workers she tested.

Photo Alejandro Cegarra for The New York Times

Although Mexico's federal environmental agency has the power to close plants that fail to comply with environmental standards, agency documents show that authorities have only temporarily closed parts of battery recycling plants four times in the past 23 years for air and soil pollution.


Mexican law requires plants to have filtration systems to eliminate the spread of lead dust, and companies must provide workers with masks.

But some filtration systems are outdated or broken, mask use isn't strictly enforced and lead dust containers sit in work areas that aren't adequately ventilated, according to Times interviews with 15 current workers and old battery recycling plants in Monterrey.

Although Mexican law requires companies to provide workers with masks and other protective measures, enforcement of these provisions has not been strict, some current and former workers say.

Photo Alejandro Cegarra for The New York Times

Óscar Nuñez, 32, testified that he worked in a recycling plant owned by a Mexican company where the ventilation did not work well and lead dust

got into his gloves.

"It was like being in jail," says Núñez, who resigned after three months for health reasons.

Elizabeth Coronado was a nurse at a Monterrey plant owned by Grupo Gonher, where González had worked, and was in charge of monitoring the health of workers in areas with high lead exposure.

Of the roughly 300 workers whose blood samples he tested every three months, he said

a third

of them had 50 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood in their bodies.

The average for battery recyclers in the United States in 2022 was 9 micrograms, according to a battery trade group.

Lead experts in the United States say that workers whose lead level reaches 30 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood should be

kept away from the source of the metal.

"It's alarming," says Coronado, who left the plant in 2021 and now works at a local health clinic.

Coronado said the company typically gave workers with high lead levels

multivitamins and milk

, neither of which experts say will do anything to improve lead exposure.

Instead, they say, the most effective treatments include giving patients drugs that specifically target lead in the body and remove it.

The Gonher Group did not respond to a request for comment.

Although no amount of lead in the body is safe, levels like those found in workers at the Gonher plant can have serious consequences, said Dr. Michael Kosnett, an expert on workplace lead exposure and associate adjunct professor of the Colorado School of Public Health.

"It should not be tolerated," he said.

"Among the most significant long-term adverse effects associated with blood lead at adolescent levels or above is a documented risk of death from heart disease."

As for González, he said that he had offered to cover the containers that contained lead dust.

But his supervisor told him that it was not a priority.

González said he was fired from the plant in 2021 as part of what the company told him was a restructuring.

In his five years at the plant, he had never missed a day of work, he said, and he believes he was fired at least in part because of concerns he repeatedly raised about lead exposure.

González, who now works renting out stereos for private events, said her friends who work at the recycling plant say little has changed.

"There is a lot of rancor," he said.

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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