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5 Surprising Ways Lead Harms the Environment

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It’s impossible to overlook how humans and our activities here on Earth impact the planet. One impact comes from the batteries we depend on to power various items that we use every day. And lead-acid batteries are one of the most common types of batteries of rechargeable batteries. Unfortunately, over the years, these batteries have had a huge negative impact on our natural and urban environments and our health. But why are lead-acid batteries harmful to the environment? Let’s dive deeper.

What Are Lead Acid Batteries?

Lead acid batteries are the original rechargeable battery. They rely on a mixture of lead and sulphuric acid in the battery casing. These batteries use a controlled chemical reaction between lead submerged in sulphuric acid to generate power. To recharge the batteries, reverse the process. 

People have used these batteries for thousands of applications, from starting car engines to UPS (uninterruptible power supply) systems, and large grid-scale power systems.

black lead-acid batteries lined up

These batteries are cheap, susceptible to damage, and have the shortest lifespans of rechargeable batteries. As a result, many people ignorantly toss lead-acid batteries in the trash when it’s time to replace them. However, these days up to 90 percent of lead-acid batteries do get recycled as an environmental charge is levied on new ones.

Even that 10 percent that gets tossed, however, causes a massive environmental impact. Not to mention the original manufacturing processes to make the batteries.

What’s the Difference Between Lead Acid Batteries and Lithium Ion Batteries?

Lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries may both be rechargeable, but they use different materials. It may seem like common sense, but lead acid batteries use lead, and lithium-ion batteries use lithium. 

While they both serve the same functions, lead acid batteries are incredibly inefficient, much heavier, and take longer to charge than lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-ion batteries, a premium product, also come with a premium price tag, but many find it’s a price worth paying for the benefits these batteries provide.

Which Types of Vehicles Use Lead Acid Batteries?

Most standard vehicles that have internal combustion engines will use lead-acid batteries. The batteries provide short bursts of power that enable the vehicle to start. Vehicles like hybrids and all-electric vehicles use lithium-ion batteries instead. This helps reduce weight, extend range, and minimize charging times.

lead acid battery danger label

Why Are Lead Acid Batteries Harmful to the Environment?

There are several reasons why lead-acid batteries are harmful to the environment. Now that we know how dangerous these batteries are for the environment, we must do everything we can to minimize their use. Let’s look at some of the ways lead acid batteries harm our planet.

Improper Recycling Processes Release Lead Particles into the Air and Ground

Lead is one of the most recycled metals on the planet. Unfortunately, that is not as good of a thing as it may sound at first blush. A study conducted by Yale University states that nearly half of all batteries end up in unregulated and illegal recycling centers.

As a result, lead particles and sulphuric acid find their way into the air and ground. This affects those near the contamination site and can cause major issues for the surrounding neighborhood environments. 

Lead Mining Releases Unhealthy Levels Of Lead Into Surrounding Communities

Lead demands are still climbing and lead mining for batteries releases large quantities of lead and other pollutants into the air, soil, and water. Many old lead mining sites in the US are heavily polluted superfund locations and have extensive clean-up efforts to protect the people and animals in the regions they existed. Unfortunately, in many countries, without the funds to protect their environments or people are continuing to get more polluted.

Lead Mine map Sign
Faro in the Yukon is a lead mine site that has seriously contaminated the local community

Lead Exposure Causes Neurological Problems For Life

Over three months, 18 children in Senegal died from encephalopathy, which is a neurological disease that destroys brain function. It stems from either a viral infection or toxins entering an individual’s blood. These children lived near a battery recycling plant that released toxic lead pollution.

The battery recycling plant contaminated this area so severely that many residents gathered soil around their homes to collect and sell the lead. Unfortunately, the 18 children were not the only victims in this situation. Hundreds of others were poisoned by the irresponsibility of those operating the recycling center. 

It may be easy to point to the most catastrophic incidents of lead poisoning. But the most alarming is the general public of the entire world, including the US. In fact, over half of the US population has been exposed to high levels of lead and could have cognitive effects from it. That could even be you and me. While the effects may be small per person, they can have catastrophic consequences for an entire community over time. In fact, lead exposure is theorized to be one of the causes of the decline of the Roman empire.

corrosion on lead acid battery terminal

Lead Exposure Results in Decreased Plant Growth

Not only is lead toxic to humans, but it poisons plants as well. If you’re wondering why lead acid batteries harmful to the environment, this is another prominent answer. Research shows that high levels of lead in the ground, such as from lead acid batteries, can stunt plant growth, prohibit photosynthesis, and affect the plant’s member structures and permeability. Even the presence of low levels of lead in soil inhibits the ability of plants to grow and establish the essential root structures necessary for survival. 

Lead Destroys Microorganisms Needed for Decomposition

The environment depends on the decomposition process to help provide valuable nutrients back into the ground. However, lead destroys the microorganisms necessary for this important process. Without these microorganisms, the quality of the soil quickly degrades. The ground loses valuable nutrients. Plants will not thrive in this environment, and vegetation will eventually become scarce.

Lead Can Be Passed From Plants to Animals to Humans

Once lead poisoning starts, it quickly spreads through the entire food chain. The pollution affects the plants, which animals eat, and then humans eat the animals. Humans have contracted lead poisoning from consuming animals with large amounts of lead in their systems. The effects of lead poisoning typically result in anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage.

man using ppe to handle lead acid batteries
Use proper PPE when working with dangerous lead-acid batteries.

How Do You Properly Dispose of Lead Acid Batteries?

If you have a lead acid battery that you want to ensure gets properly recycled, you can take it to a nearby auto parts store. Places like AutoZone, Advance Auto Parts, and NAPA Auto Parts are some of the most common. 

You may even receive a $10 gift card to the store by turning in a lead acid battery you no longer need. However, not every location participates in this type of program. Make sure you call ahead and confirm whether or not your local store will accept your lead acid battery.

If you’re trying to find a local recycling center for your lead acid battery, try Call2Recycle.org. It’s a national program aiming to help ensure consumers properly dispose of lead acid batteries. They’ll help you track down locations near you that accept various types of batteries, including lead acid.

Is Lead Poisoning Common in the United States?

Research indicates that nearly 170 million of the almost 330 million residents of the United States experienced some form of harmful exposure to lead as children. Additionally, this research estimates that 90% of those born between 1951 and 1980 had blood-lead levels that exceeded the threshold the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set.

Thankfully, the creation of regulations around lead disposal and educational efforts has helped to limit exposure drastically. Dr. Matt Hauer, an assistant professor of sociology at Florida State University, said, “Generation X was exposed to very high amounts of lead, and now millennials and the generation following them have been exposed to very low amounts of lead.” So while serious cases of lead poisoning are very rare in the United States, it’s likely to become even less uncommon in younger generations.

Battle Born lithium batteries in natural environment

Protect the Environment: Switch to Lithium Ion Batteries and Properly Recycle Your Lead Acid Batteries

If you want to do your part to protect the environment, make the switch from lead-acid batteries to lithium-ion batteries. When you do, ensure your old lead-acid batteries are responsibly recycled, so they don’t harm the environment.

We are not saying that the lithium mining and manufacturing process is completely impact-free, but the overall impact and impact per battery lifespan is a fraction of that of a lead-acid alternative. In addition, the materials in the battery themselves are nontoxic and pose no threat to your health even if they are disposed of improperly.

With Lithium, not only will you gain lighter and more powerful batteries, but you’ll also know your batteries are less harmful to the environment or your health.

Want To Learn More About Electrical Systems and Lithium Batteries?

We know that building or upgrading an electrical system can be overwhelming, so we’re here to help. Our Reno, Nevada-based sales and customer service team is standing by at (855) 292-2831 to take your questions!

Also, join us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to learn more about how lithium battery systems can power your lifestyle, see how others have built their systems, and gain the confidence to get out there and stay out there.

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