Toxic charge: How batteries are poisoning Kinshasa’s children

Lead-acid batteries contain several kilogrammes of lead, a potent neurotoxin that is estimated to affect almost 24 million children in DR Congo.

Experts say the unsafe repair of lead-acid batteries is likely to be a leading source of lead poisoning in Kinshasa [Lisa Murray/Al Jazeera]

Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo – Crouching outside his home in Kinshasa, Deguache Siwambanaza pulls out a handful of lead sheets from a broken car battery. Nearby, his colleague melts a small chunk of lead on a charcoal stove.

They are watched closely by Siwambanaza’s five-year-old daughter, Elisia, as she tucks into a bowl of fried chicken and rice.

“I cook [melt] some of the lead and reuse it in the battery, some other parts I throw away,” said Siwambanaza, decanting the acid into a plastic bottle that he will later water down and use to clean the floor tiles in his house in the Lemba neighbourhood of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) capital.

“I haven’t had any health problems because of my work,” added Siwambanaza, 41, who makes a living as a battery repairman. “We have to be careful with the acid, but that’s all.”

Unknown to Siwambanaza, every time he opens a battery, he exposes himself – and those living and working around him – to a threat that is estimated to kill more people globally than malaria and is acutely damaging to children’s development. Manually breaking open a battery is a messy process, with lead particles escaping in the drained acid, dispersing into the air when lead is burned and falling off when battery parts are handled or stored inadequately.

Degauche Siwambanaza poses for a photograph in the doorway of his battery repair workshop in Kinshasa [Lisa Murray/Al Jazeera]

While the world celebrated the end of the era of leaded petrol in August, studies show lead poisoning is increasing in much of the developing world, propelled by a rise in the use of other products that contain the substance.

Driven mostly by the battery industry, demand for lead has grown as much as 10-fold in a decade. Although there is much hype about the role of lithium-ion batteries – which have a longer lifespan, are lighter and less toxic – in the future of energy storage, experts say this does not herald the demise of their cheaper and recyclable cousins, the lead-acid batteries.

“Our dependence on lead-acid batteries will continue to grow,” said Andrew McCartor, vice president of strategy and partnerships at Pure Earth. “Any modern economy relies on lead-acid batteries to do a variety of different things – backup power supply, cell towers and even electric vehicles, all of which use a lead-acid battery alongside a lithium-ion one.”

Lead is a potent neurotoxin that damages the nervous system, causing irreparable harm to children’s brains. Aside from batteries, the substance is used in paint across much of the developing world and has been found in spices and fishing tackle, among other things.

It is particularly damaging to babies and children under the age of five, who absorb it five times as quickly, and can cause a permanent loss of IQ, violent behaviour and, in severe cases, death.

Deguache Siwambanaza (middle), Joseul Musanda (middle left), Degauche’s five-year-old daughter, Elisia Siwambanaza (left) and two of his employees (right), huddle over as they seal a car battery using a smoking stick in Kinshasa [Lisa Murray/Al Jazeera]

In the DRC’s capital, more than 40 percent of children are thought to have dangerous levels of the substance in their bodies, according to a 2011 study by the University of Kinshasa.

Africa’s economy alone is thought to lose more than $134bn each year because of the associated loss of IQ points –  more than the entire continent receives in international aid annually.

Experts say the unsafe repair of lead-acid batteries, which contain several kilos of the toxic substance, is likely to be a leading source of lead poisoning in the city.

“As soon as you break open a battery, you’re polluting,” said Andreas Manhart, a senior researcher at Oeko-Institut’s Sustainable Products & Material Flows Division.

In Kinshasa, the level of lead is about 50 percent higher in neighbourhoods where batteries are recycled, soil samples taken by the University of Kinshasa show.

“It’s often done by artisanals or on a household scale, it’s not regulated at all,” said Joel Tuakuila, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Toxicology at the University of Kinshasa. “People are contaminated by inhaling dust particles in the surrounding area. There’s a total lack of safety procedures and children who play nearby can easily consume lead particles.”

And for parents like Siwambanaza, who have no safety equipment, they can inadvertently expose their children by bringing contaminated dust home on their clothes, hands or shoes.

The acid used on the floor leaves a trace of lead dust that can be easily inhaled or ingested by children, experts say.

With few early symptoms, “lead silently wreaks havoc children’s health and development,” Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s executive director, said in a report last year.

While there is a dearth of information on the health effects of lead in the DRC, it is estimated that almost 24 million children in the country have blood lead levels of more than 5 microgrammes per decilitre – the level at which the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires a public health response.

This level of poisoning is associated with decreased intelligence – with children scoring 3-5 points lower on intelligence tests than their peers – shorter attention spans, aggressiveness and potentially violent or criminal behaviour later in life.

While lead poisoning dropped after the phase-out of leaded gasoline in 2009 in the DRC, lead levels have remained persistently high and much remains unknown about the exact sources of exposure – although leaded paint and the consumption of clay to ease pregnancy pains remain suspects.

Serge Musinga removes a lid made from recycled aluminium from a sand cast mould at his workshop in Kinshasa [Lisa Murray/Al Jazeera]

Market stalls draped in pagne, a traditional Congolese waxed cloth, line a muddy path in Kinshasa’s Ngaba commune. To the back of the market is a small opening where 47-year-old Serge Musinga throws chunks of scrap aluminium into a large pot of molten metal over an open fire.

“We use all sorts of scrap aluminium, a lot of it comes from garages,” said Serge’s business partner, Dawuda Bokele. “Sometimes it’s wheel rims, pistons, radiators or engine blocks.”

After half an hour, he pours the silver liquid into sand cast moulds stacked on the ground. Once the aluminium has cooled, he brushes away the sand to reveal a rough-edged cooking pot, an item commonly found in Kinshasa’s kitchens.

Scrap metal used by artisanal pot makers varies from day to day and site to site, but there are types of scrap metal that may contain significant amounts of lead and other metals, such as engine parts, according to Perry Gottesfeld, from Occupational Knowledge International, a public health organisation.

Unlike factory-made cookware, locally made pots are not anodised, which means they lack a protective coating.

While Kinshasa’s pots have not been tested, studies of similar cookware across the continent show cooking can result in leaching significant concentrations of toxic metals into food, including lead, posing a “serious and previously unrecognized health risk to millions of people”, according to a study let by Gottesfeld.

Artisanal pots are not anodised which means they lack a protective coating to prevent leaching [Lisa Murray/Al Jazeera]

Whether pots are a leading mode of lead poisoning in Kinshasa remains unclear. But as economies across Africa grow, more cars hit the road, cell-towers pierce skylines and solar panels cluster on rooftops, lead-acid batteries are going to become increasingly ubiquitous; good news for battery repairmen like Siwambanaza, but potentially bad news for his daughter, Elisia.

But what happens when they can no longer be repaired?

A guard opens a door along a concrete wall on a busy street in Kinshasa’s industrial quarter. Inside, men drain acid from batteries before they are loaded into a shipping container bound for India, where the lead is smelted and made into ingots.

“We have to drain the acid before sending them,” said a manager at the warehouse who did not wish to be identified, a practice which goes against the guidelines set out in the Basel Convention, an international treaty which says batteries should be shipped whole to prevent contamination.

“Lead-acid batteries are here for the foreseeable future,” said McCartor. “All countries are going to end up with larger volumes of lead-acid batteries so it is critical that they have a sound vehicle for recycling.”

Back in Lemba, Siwambanaza said he hoped to expand his business.

“I want to be a great battery seller and have a big business,” he added. “And I want my daughter to be a journalist when she’s older, but I can’t decide for her, she’ll have to decide for herself.”

Fourteen-year-old Bonheur Siwambanaza (right) helps out his father’s employee, Joseul Musanda, aged 29, at their battery repair workshop in Kinshasa [Lisa Murray/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera