Toxic charge: how batteries are poisoning the children of Kinshasa

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

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

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

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

Unknown to Siwambanaza, every time he opens a battery, he exposes himself, and those who live and work around him, to a threat that is Estimate killing more people around the world than malaria and is extremely damaging to the development of children. Manually opening a battery is a complicated process, in which lead particles escape into drained acid, disperse into the air when lead is burned, and fall off when battery parts are improperly handled or stored.

Degauche Siwambanaza poses for a photo outside his battery repair shop in Kinshasa [Lisa Murray/Al Jazeera]

While the world celebrated the end of the era of leaded gasoline in August, studies show that lead poisoning is on the rise in much of the developing world, driven by an increase in the use of other products containing the substance. .

Driven primarily by the battery industry, demand for lead has grown up to ten times in a decade. Although there is a lot of publicity 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 that this does not herald the demise of their cousins cheaper and recyclable, lead. -acid batteries.

“Our reliance on lead-acid batteries will continue to grow,” said Andrew McCartor, vice president of strategy and partnerships for Pure Earth. “Any modern economy depends on lead-acid batteries to do a variety of different things: backup power supplies, cell towers, and even electric vehicles, all of which use a lead-acid battery in conjunction with a lead-acid battery. lithium”.

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

It is particularly harmful to babies and children under the age of five, who absorb it. five times fasterAnd it can cause permanent loss of IQ, violent behavior 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 together as they seal the car battery with a smoking rod in Kinshasa [Lisa Murray/Al Jazeera]

In the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than 40 percent of children are believed to have dangerous levels of the substance in their bodies, according to a 2011 report. study from the University of Kinshasa.

Africa’s economy alone is believed to lose more than $ 134 billion every year due to associated loss of IQ points – more than the whole continent receives in international aid annually.

Experts say that the unsafe repair of lead-acid batteries, which contain several kilos of the toxic substance, is likely one of the main sources of lead poisoning in the city.

“As soon as you open a battery, you are polluting,” said Andreas Manhart, principal investigator in the Division of Material Flows and Sustainable Products at the Oeko-Institut.

In Kinshasa, the lead level is about 50 percent higher in neighborhoods where batteries are recycled, terrain samples Taken by the University of Kinshasa show.

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

And for parents like Siwambanaza, who don’t have safety gear, 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 trail of lead dust that children can easily inhale or ingest, experts say.

With few early symptoms, “lead quietly wreaks havoc on children’s health and development,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director, at a report last year.

While there is a paucity of information on the health effects of lead in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is estimated that almost 24 million children in the country have blood lead levels of more than 5 micrograms per deciliter, the level at which the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires a public health response.

This level of intoxication is associated with a decrease in intelligence in children. scoring 3-5 points less on intelligence tests than their peers: shorter attention spans, aggressiveness, and potentially violent or criminal behavior later in life.

While lead poisoning declined after the 2009 phasing out of leaded gasoline in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, lead levels have remained persistently high and much is still unknown about the exact sources of exposure, although paint Lead and the consumption of clay to relieve pregnancy pain remain suspect.

Serge Musinga removes a lid made of recycled aluminum from a sand mold in his workshop in Kinshasa [Lisa Murray/Al Jazeera]

Market stalls covered in pagne, a traditional Congolese waxed cloth, line a muddy road in Kinshasa’s Ngaba commune. At the rear of the market is a small opening where 47-year-old Serge Musinga dumps bits of aluminum scrap into a large molten metal pot over an open fire.

“We use all kinds of aluminum scrap, much of which comes from the workshops,” said Serge’s business partner Dawuda Bokele. “Sometimes it’s wheel rims, pistons, radiators, or engine blocks.”

After half an hour, pour the silver liquid into stacked sand molds on the ground. Once the aluminum has cooled, remove the sand to reveal a rough-edged cooking pot, an item commonly found in Kinshasa kitchens.

The scrap used by artisan pot makers varies from day to day and from site to site, but there are types of scrap that can contain significant amounts of lead and other metals, such as engine parts, according to Occupational Knowledge’s Perry Gottesfeld. International. a public health organization.

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

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

The craft pots are not anodized, which means they lack a protective coating to prevent leaching. [Lisa Murray/Al Jazeera]

It is not clear if the vessels are one of the main forms of lead poisoning in Kinshasa. But as Africa’s economies grow, more cars hit the road, cell phone towers pierce horizons and solar panels cluster on rooftops, lead-acid batteries will become increasingly ubiquitous; good news for battery repairers 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 the industrial district of Kinshasa. Inside, the men drain the acid from the batteries before loading them into a shipping container bound for India, where the lead is melted into ingots.

“We have to drain the acid before shipping them,” said a warehouse manager who did not want to be named, a practice that goes against guidelines set out in the Basel Convention, an international treaty that says batteries must be shipped whole. to prevent contamination.

“Lead-acid batteries are here for the foreseeable future,” McCartor said. “All countries will end up with higher volumes of lead-acid batteries, so it is essential that they have a solid vehicle for recycling.”

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

“I want to be a great battery salesman and have a great business,” he added. “And I want my daughter to be a journalist when she grows up, but I can’t decide for her, she will have to decide for herself.”

Bonheur Siwambanaza, 14 (right), helps his father’s employee, Joseul Musanda, 29, at his battery repair shop in Kinshasa. [Lisa Murray/Al Jazeera]

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