Action News vol 5 no 1 1997 ISSN 1324-6011
Edited by Simon McRae of Greenpeace Melbourne and Adrian Hill of The LEAD Group, based on "Lead Overload: Lead battery waste trade and recycling in the Philippines" by Greenpeace Australia.
In a small village in the Philippines a few kilometres north of Manila, residents clasp scarves to their faces and gag and choke for breath. In May 1996, locals from the village Barrio Patubig were found to have blood levels contaminated with enough lead to trigger toxicological damage. These people are victims of a shameful international toxic trade - and investigations show they may be choking on Australian poison.
Whatís Going Where
In 1995 Australia sent 6,185 tons of used lead acid batteries to the Philippines, which made it the third-biggest toxic trader in scrap lead batteries to that country. Figures compiled by Greenpeace show that since 1991 at least 76,000 tons of lead acid batteries have been imported to the Philippines. In the last 6 months of 1996 Australia exported over 1.2 million scrap batteries to the Philippines.
Lead is one of the most toxic of all environmental contaminants, with infants and pre-school children at particular risk. Exposure to lead can cause poisoning, brain damage and even death.
In October 1996 Greenpeace and the University of the Philippines surveyed 35 children living near lead disposal facilities. Blood lead levels were up to 3 times the Australian standard of 10 Ķg/dL. Of the 10 preschoolers, almost half were over 15 Ķg/dL.
One [adult] worker who was employed for three months [on wages of less than $4 per day] was hospitalised for five months and had to pay his own medical expenses. Workers at most recycling plants in the Philippines have very little protection from lead contamination.
Residents of Patubig liken the toxic fumes from the plant to the "devilís fart", and watch the Marilao River turn black from its discharges. Samples collected by Greenpeace around the plant show severe lead contamination of soil, river sediment and vegetation. Greenpeace sampling of effluent from the plant found lead levels 1,900 times Australian allowable standards. Lead is the biggest waste product of scrap batteries, but plants can also discharge highly toxic arsenic, mercury, and sulphuric acid.
"Hazardous waste recycling in developing countries can be characterised as either sham or dirty recycling. The facilities often pollute far more than a final disposal facility would," says the Greenpeace report Lead Overload.
The situation is no better in India. Australia is the second largest exporter of highly toxic zinc and lead ash. Investigations show that over the past two years Australia has exported more than 9,000 tons of toxic waste to India. Only the US sent more.
What Greenpeace is Doing
Greenpeace campaigners Von Hernandez from the Philippines and Ravi Agawal from India toured Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, spoke at seminars and inspected an Australian lead acid battery recycling plant in Sydney, jointly run by Pasminco and Simmsmetal. They met with government ministers and senior bureaucrats to put the case from the non-OECD viewpoint on harmful toxic trade. Although Australia is a signatory to the Basel Convention [which bans hazardous waste exports to developing countries for disposal], the law it passed to ratify the treaty was seriously deficient. In September 1995 the parties to the Basel Convention agreed to the Basel Ban amendment which bans waste for recovery operations in developing countries by 31st December 1997. Thanks to pressure from Greenpeace and other Organisations the government has since been forced to amend its initial bill. To meet its international obligations to the Basel Convention the amendments which came into effect on December 12th 1996 now require waste traders to get permits from the Federal environment Minister to export hazardous waste including lead, with fines of up to $1 million for false reporting.
What can I do?
Write to the Federal Environment Minister, c/- Parliament House, Canberra, ACT 2600. Demand that the Australian government implements the Basel Ban on sending waste for recycling and recovery in poor developing countries NOW. Do not wait until 1998.
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Updated 12 January 2013