For example, the batteries for electric rickshaws, which are typically charged twice a day, have a short life span, explained Ms Vandement. “Then they need to be recycled – that’s where the problem is.”
Official recycling operations are subject to regulations in most countries, but the rules are scantily enforced in many parts of the developing world, according to Unicef.
An even bigger problem comes from informal recycling sites. Spewing toxic fumes into the air and contaminating land, these have boomed in the last few years.
The men (and the few women) who toil in such sites carry the contaminated dust home, exposing their children to lead poisoning. Among the poorest, the dangerous work is a lifeline, however.
In Raksa, an island in the north of Bangladesh, the whole village depends on illegal sweltering, said Dr. Lutful Kabir, a research investigator at Pure Earth. Lead recycled there gets sent to factories to be re-used, fuelling an entire underground industry.
Having grown up in a village next to a lead factory, when eight-year-old Anik’s blood was tested for lead the results showed a shocking 26g/dL.
“He gets angry very easily, can’t seem to focus on his studies, and isn’t growing as a kid should” said his mother, Sharmin Akter. “People in the village are beginning to realise [lead’s] harmful impacts, and they will not let it happen again.”
But combatting lead poisoning is no easy task. “As quick as we shut down illegal sweltering sites and start decontaminating the area, new ones spring up again somewhere else,” said Dr Lutful.
He and his team also focus on educating people about the risks of lead exposure and the myriad sources of contamination as well as advocating for changes to government policy.
Creating awareness is the biggest challenge, said Mr Rees. Most communities in countries with the highest rates of lead poisoning have “no idea”. Many policy makers are little better informed, added Ms Vandement, “that needs to change”.
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