More than a million battery-operated auto-rickshaws sprang up out of nowhere in Bangladesh and are now being used by millions of people every day. This is a newly added innovative technology in Bangladesh's transport system. It is often called an easy-bike, charger or auto, which is now a well-known name in the field of transport. The technology has been introduced to Bangladesh in 2009 and all urban and rural areas have now been equipped with these easy-bikes. These are considered as the cheapest and instantly available mode of public transport. From the beginning, it has been popular among the lower and middle-class people because of low transport cost.
The use of lead-acid batteries has sharply risen because of the increased demand for easy-bikes in the transport sector. About 97% of lead-acid batteries in Bangladesh are manufactured by recycling batteries and scrap metal. Lead recovered from old batteries by crude smelting process is used as raw material to manufacture a new battery. This recovered lead is used and subsequently recycled for several occasions. There are as many as 1,100 informal and illegal recycling/recharging establishments all over Bangladesh and one-third of these establishments are found in the Dhaka division. The majority of lead batteries in Bangladesh end up being recycled by unregulated small-scale operators. During this process, vaporised lead contamination occurs in the air while being discarded acid pollutes the environment.
These huge contamination revealed a high blood level among children and adults. The national mean blood lead level (BLL) among Bangladeshi children is estimated to be 7 μg/dl. 47% of children (28.5 million out of 60 million children) live with levels of lead in their blood above the safe level. We know that lead is a potent neurotoxin. Recent evidence suggested, even at low levels, lead damages the intellectual development of young children, reducing IQ and attentive disorder. Bangladesh is estimated to have the 4th highest rate of death attributable to lead exposures, globally.
Measures should be taken to restrict or control any source of lead dust or fumes by applying proper technical control measures in every step of the lead-acid battery manufacturing process. Battery manufacturing workers should be made aware to undertake precautionary measures to use personnel protective equipment (PPEs) and maintain personal hygiene. Periodic estimation of blood lead level and examination of manifestations attributable to lead toxicity are to be undertaken for early detection and preventive measures as well. Ingesting soil and dust are primary pathways of children's exposure to several environmental contaminants.
The government should take steps to ensure that the recycling of both formal and non-formal lead-acid batteries is done in a safer and environmentally friendly way.
Dr Mahfuzar Rahman is the Country Director of Pure Earth, Bangladesh. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org