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Dying in instalments: How lead battery recyclers are poisoning Nigerians (Part I)

Soil pollution in Ipetoro from Everest factory/Photo: Adetona Omokanye
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A three-month investigation uncovers how companies recycling lead acid batteries are poisoning air, soil and water sources in Ogun and Lagos states leaving workers and residents with scary levels of lead in their blood and leading experts to conclude  these Nigerians are dying in instalments, writes ISAAC ANYAOGU.

Air pollution in Ipetoro/Photo: Adetona Omokanye

The air around Ipetoro and Ewurokun communities in Ogijo, Sagamu Local government of Ogun state, has the acrid taste of alkaline; the sky is soggy dripping with smoke rising from powerful kilns inside Everest Metals Nigeria Ltd and Monarch Steel Ltd, Indian-owned companies recycling lead acid batteries and pulverising metals in the community.

Water pollution in Ipetoro/Photo: Adetona Omokanye

Every house within a thousand meters of these factories has something in common: darkened ceilings, windows that are shut both at day and night, black soot settling on furniture, inside the kitchens, in their water and inside their lungs.

“We hardly sleep, both day and night we are faced with smoke, noise and soil pollution,” said 41-year old, Rufus Noel, a local pastor, who lives three hundred and fifty meters away from Everest Metals.  “My children constantly suffer runny nose, fevers from time to time, their health is at risk,”

Rufus, a widower, has taken his youngest child who is seven, to the hospital, three times in October, 2018 when we visited. The doctors say the same thing; the child is at risk of complicated respiratory problems.

Rufus blames both companies for the smoke, but holds Everest Metals accountable for ruining soil and water sources in the community through its hazardous waste materials.

Noel Rufus/Photo: Adetona Omokanye

But Rufus’ family, like over 500 households live in their own house, many still without paint or plaster and others still at deck levels, as they carry a valiant struggle to hold off penury.
The community also constitute the bulk of the labour force of these companies. Jobs are few and opportunities fewer. The companies are a blessing and a curse.

With labourers earning between N42,000 and N50,000 monthly, it’s the best paying gig in the sleepy community. The other options are subsistence farming, teaching at a local school or joining the transport business which offers a quarter of what these companies pay.
But it comes at a high cost. Half a dozen children have died in the community within the last five years suspected of respiratory complications, said Samson Onasanya, another religious cleric whose church ceiling has holes in them, for which he blames the company.

Blood tests

LeadCare ll device/Photo: Adetona Omokanye

 

Following an outcry by residents, BusinessDay’s correspondent collaborated with Petra Sorge, a freelance German journalist in an investigation supported by the European Centre for Journalism, to test the residents’ claims that Everest Metals is responsible for respiratory diseases and deaths of children and livestock in Ipetoro as well as hold accountable international companies who buy lead from these factories.

Tobias Eisenhut, a German paediatrician with experience on the subject was flown into Nigeria to conduct blood tests using Lead Care II, a medical testing device manufactured by the United States biotech manufacturer Magellan Diagnostics, capable of immediate measurement of results without sending the blood samples to a laboratory. The Ogun state ministry of health and the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA) provided approvals and were duly carried along.

Children had average lead levels of 19.8%/Photo: Adetona Omokanye
Adults had average levels of 20%/Photo: Adetona Omokanye

On October 26, at Likosi Primary Health Centre, in Ogijo, Eisenhut assisted by the Oluwaseun Akinsanya, the matron, took blood samples from 40 volunteers from the affected communities, including residents and factory workers. Six samples were taken from volunteers in Metalworld Recycling facility in Lagos and six were used as controls including an official of the ministry of environment who monitored the tests. Everyone agreed to share the results with the press but the workers pleaded for anonymity.

At above 5 micrograms per deciliter, the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) regards it as a reference level at which it recommends initiating public health actions. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says blood lead above 10 micrograms per deciliter, is a high level of concern and classifies it as lead poisoning.

Average blood lead levels of volunteers tested

Forty-six samples exceeded the WHO threshold of 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Everyone tested who lived close to Everest Metals factory or worked in Metalworld recycling had high values.
“They are killing us gradually,” said Rufus upon discovery that he has 27 micrograms of lead in his blood.

The WHO says that in adults, blood lead levels as little as 5 micrograms per deciliter can cause cardiovascular problems and reduces the immune system. In children and embryos, lead attacks brain and nerves and can lead to learning difficulties and even mental retardation. Each microgram costs a quarter to half IQ point.

“Statistically lead blood lead levels of 10 micrograms and above in about half of the children can lead to developmental delays,” said Eisenhut.
The children come to an average of 19.8 micrograms while adults recorded an average of 21.1 micrograms. For instance, seven year old, Azizat Adokoya, had 21.6 micrograms and ten-year old Faruk Balogun, who often plays football near the factory had blood lead levels of 27 micrograms. Even toddlers are not spared with Kehinde and Taiwo, twins of one-year and ten months recording 19.2, and 24.4 micrograms respectively.

Eisenhut explains the level of exposure and capacity of the immune system could account for differences.
Everest Metals is located less than 500 meters away from Christheirs Nursery and Primary school, which had over 200 students, who are between 2 and 14 years. The head teacher who didn’t want to be named said she sometimes considers sending the children home when the smoke becomes intense.

“But then their homes are also in the community,” she said.
Eisenhut said the results from children who attend the school indicating high levels of lead in their blood were not surprising.
There’s only so much the children can learn with the haze of smoke and the rotten smell from the factories, Blessing Olaiya, a class teacher said.

Akinsanya, the matron at Likosi primary healthcare centre said complaints from residents in the community includes coughing, persistent headaches, anaemia, irritability, fatigue, and general weakness.

As control for the test, Tobias Eisenhut, Leslie Adogame, the founder of non-profit, SRADEV who had conducted soil tests in the community, his staff and the journalists were tested and reported average blood lead levels of 3.7 micrograms.

Lead pollution in Lagos
A blinding haze of smoke from a factory will surely not go unnoticed by the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA), but lead poisoning, more insidious even if subtle, happens in Oshodi, only 18 kilometres away from their office at Alausa.

Unsafe working environment, Metalworld Recycling Ltd/Photo: Adetona Omokanye

 

Metalworld Recycling Limited in Oshodi, along with smaller recyclers in Ojota, Agege, Ijora, Festac and Apapa engage in activities to separate lead inglots from car batteries but their operations violate safety standards.

We observed at Metalworld Recycling that workers were not wearing adequate protective gear, lead dust easily drifts into the atmosphere, and the facility is sited close to residential and business areas.

“We buy from the local surrounding areas,” Vinod Jindal, the managing director of the company told us.  “We simply ask the buyer to bring without the acid. They bring it after removing the acid.”

But our investigation showed that the company’s suppliers who are mostly Nigerian firms discharge the battery acid unfiltered into the environment. Individuals also are in the trade like Oluchi Olehi, who buys used lead acid batteries from solar energy companies and sells to Metalworld and Everest Metals.

Soiled soil
Last year, Adogame, took soil samples around the Ipetoro as well in the premises of Metalworld Recycling and the result showed three of the four test tubes taken exceeded the permissible lead limits.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows no more than 400 milligrams per kilo near the settlement. In Ipetoro the values were 1900, 2700 and 130,000 milligrams. In Metalworld Recycling the values range between 12,000 to 140,000 mg/kg.

“The soil is totally destroyed and is unsafe for agricultural purpose,” says Adogame who accompanied us to Ipetoro community. Adogame said that what needs to be done is move the people away and carry out remediation activities on the land.

Dangerous work 
Everest Metals refused to grant us access to the facility to speak to them or inspect the claims of residents of Ipetoro while Metalworld Recycling provided access. We decided an undercover operation as a last resort to get into Everest Metals.

To get a job at Everest Metal Nigeria Ltd, you only need to show up. Work hours are between 7am and 6pm with a thirty minutes break by 10 am and an hour break by 1pm.
You are then sent into a warehouse filled with all sorts of metals, zinc, aluminium or lead and told to sort like materials. If you’re not adept even at that, you are then told to help someone who is sorting. No one is turned away on account of their intellectual inadequacy; this is not a job where high intellect is highly priced, you only need to have a pulse.

“When you enter here, you will look at others, the way they are doing, you copy them,” an experienced worker said. This we soon learn is the only orientation you get until you graduate working the furnace.
Everest Metal Nigeria Ltd, incorporated on May 12, 2009, has as key sections: battery demolition, lead furnace, raw material storage area, crucible, bailing machine section, administrative blocks and staff residential quarters.

We counted a dozen staff in the most critical sections – battery demolition, lead furnace, crucible and storage sections with scant personal, protective equipment. In the yard, half the size of football field, car batteries are stacked on unpaved surface.

Working with inadequate protective wear, Metalworld Recycling Ltd/Photo: Adetona Omokanye

In the workshop, workers chop and saw without a breathing mask. At the rotary kiln, in which the battery plates are melted to lead, a man pierces the liquid metal as blue gas escapes at several points.

Unsafe working environment//Photo: Adetona Omokanye

 

“This is absolutely negligent,” says Andreas Manhart, environmental scientist, at the Öko-Institut when he reviewed our pictures.
Manhart has visited several lead factories in developing countries and knows that the liquid, glowing lead that escapes uncontrollably during this step is hazardous.

“The worker should actually be fully equipped with special protective clothing and visor in front of the face,” says Manhart. The environment is “probably highly contaminated,” he said.

Working without the right protection, Everest Metals/Photo: Adetona Omokanye

Metal sheets covering the furnace at Everest have been eaten away by corrosive sulphuric acid. A test on 16-year old Omisore Abiodun, who breaks battery to discharge the acid content showed the highest blood level of 65 micrograms.

Everest Metals staff working in the furnace section refused to be tested. But five others in related sections who agreed to the test but wished to remain anonymous, and who frequently complain of headaches, persistent cough, dizziness and even anaemia, have the following values: 21.8, 32, 38.1, 41.4, and 42.3 micrograms.

Working without the right protection, Everest Metals/Photo: Adetona Omokanye

 

Thriving industry 
According to research by Recycling and Economic Initiative Development of Nigeria (REDIN), an environmental non-profit, supported by the Heinrich Boll Stiftung (HBS) Nigeria, over 500,000 tons of used lead acid batteries (ULABs) are generated in Nigeria annually from the automobile and renewable energy sectors.

The retail cost of used lead acid batteries ranges between N4,000 and N10,000 per unit. Each ton is sold at N340,000 translating to a market value of N170bn. The cost of transporting each ton is put at N11,000 and at the rate of 500,000 tones, the estimated cost is put at N5.5billion. This puts the estimated value of the sector in Nigeria to over N175billion.
The real money comes in hard currency when it is shipped abroad. Depending on their size and lead content, agents for the vehicle battery in Nigeria pay between 12 and 24 euros. The kilo price is around 82 cents, the ton at 820 euros. At the London Metal Exchange, raw lead is traded for about 1.70 euros per kilo – 1700 euros per ton.

Everest Metals buys lead batteries repurposed from vehicles and solar energy components from local suppliers within Lagos, Onitisha and Abuja who may or may not have drained the battery of acid. Three residents of the community including Rufus say the company disposes of the acid water into the community whenever it rains.

Everest Metals pays good price to its suppliers, and Oladimeji Ojewale-Azeez, an artisanal recycler confirms this. He has a workshop – Metal Made Recycling – in Agege. The car batteries are stacked in one corner and the sacks of uncovered scrap in the other. Metal Made consists of him and his three brothers.

Azeez, who wears rubber muffs and plastic boots, puts on a surgical mask, grabs a long knife, a rusty metal bar, and attacks the car battery. Local collectors, like Azeez break open car batteries and empty the acid water into gutters, canals and rivers and supply to exporters like Everest Metal Nigeria Ltd. But it is also another very dangerous part of the work. Azeez had a blood lead level of 50.6 micrograms.

Everest Metals along with other exporters in Nigeria are making a fortune from the export of lead from an unregulated Nigerian environment to markets in Europe, India, and China but are unwilling to make the investments to carry out their operations in an environmentally sound and safe way.

 

This investigation was supported by the European Centre for Journalism and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Petra Sorge, freelance journalist from Germany assisted with the research for the story.

ISAAC ANYAOGU

 

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