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Lead Astray Again: The Ongoing Illegal Trade of U.S. Scrap Lead Acid Batteries to Brazil

1. Summary
2. Legal Status of LAB trade between U.S. and Brazil

2.1 Brazilian regulations
2.2 The Basel Convention
2.3 U.S. Regulations

3. Contamination by Moura

4. The Impact of Lead on Health and the Environment.
5. The Commerce and the Economy of Used Batteries
6. Recommendations

Greenpeace International
Keizersgracht 176
1016 DW Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Tel: 31-20-523-6222
Fax: 31-20-523-6200
August 1997

1. Summary

Greenpeace researchers have discovered that imports of scrap lead acid batteries (LAB) into Brazil are continuing in violation of Brazilian and international law. Grupo Moura, one of the country's largest manufacturers of car batteries, is the principal importer of LAB into Brazil despite national import ban since 1994. According to data from the Brazilian foreign trade secretary (SECEX) from January to June of 1997, 5,702 tons of lead scrap batteries were imported to Brazil and 5,000 tons (88%) came from the U.S. Grupo Moura is responsible for all imports from the U.S. with a total value of U.S.$774,000.

In October 1996, Greenpeace denounced Moura's illegal imports of over 66,000 tons of used LAB from the U.S. Greenpeace analysis of soil, water and sediment samples from Grupo Moura's lead recycling facilities in the state of Pernambuco show dangerous lead contamination caused by the company's operations. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, between January and April of 1997, the U.S. exported U.S. $842,000 worth of scrap batteries to Brazil. Shipping manifests from the U.S. Port of Miami showed 108 containers (2,800 tons) labeled as "batteries wet filled with acid UN 2794" were shipped to the port of Suape/Recife in Pernambuco, Brazil in the first five months of 1997 (1). The exporter was International Trade Partners of Medley, Florida. (2) The shipments were all done on the SeaLand vessels "Sea Wolf" of "Sea Fox". In this illegal trade, with which Brazil bases its industrial development on the importation of hazardous waste from the United States, Brazil essentially doubles its lead contamination problem: while lead batteries are imported for dirty recycling, Brazil's own used batteries are left in landfills, on the roadsides or end in backyard smelters. In this report, Greenpeace documents the trade in lead acid batteries, and calls for measure by Brazil and the U.S. to end this illegal and hazardous trade.

2. Legal Status of LAB trade between U.S. and Brazil

2.1 Brazilian regulations

LAB imports into Brazil have been prohibited since May, 1994, by CONAMA resolution number 37 from December 30, 1994. CONAMA - Brazilian National Commission for the Environment - is the official legal body that legislates on environmental issues. Despite this ban, LAB trade with the U.S. has never ceased. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. exported $842,000 worth of LAB between January and April of 1997, while Brazilian trade statistics show 5,000 tons of U.S. LAB imported into Brazil in the first six months of 1997. These imports were registered under the Brazilian tariff code - lead scrap and residues of batteries. A footnote to this code states "import prohibited (resolution CONAMA 23/96)." Yet this footnote was ignored. On October 11, 1996, Dr. Gustavo Krause, Minister of the Environment, Water Resources and the Legal Amazon signed Resolution 8, authorizing nine companies, including Moura, to import LAB for the purpose of lead recovery. However, due to public outrage and parliamentarian actions this resolution was suspended on October 24, 1996, and revoked on December 6, 1996. On December 12, 1996, the Brazilian government reaffirmed the ban on hazardous waste imports through a new CONAMA Resolution 23. Therefore, the ban on scrap LAB imports remains in place.

2.2 The Basel Convention

In 1994 the member states of the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes decided by consensus to prohibit immediately all exports of hazardous wastes destined for final disposal and for recycling by 1998 for wastes coming from the wealthy countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to countries not belonging to this organization. This decision was a response of developing countries to the perverse practice of the industrialized countries to use poorer countries as a dumping ground for toxic wastes. The inclusion in the Basel Ban of hazardous wastes destined for recycling is of great importance, since some 90% of hazardous wastes shipped to the third World include at least a pretense of recycling. Some of these recycling schemes are sham operations; others involve substantial recovery operations but pose a threat to human health and the environment. The Basel Ban was incorporated in the text of the Convention in the form of an amendment during the Third Conference in Geneva in 1995. Brazil was one of the countries that approved the Basel Ban and later its modified form with amendments. This ban is legally binding for all member countries of the Convention, which total more than 100 countries. At the 10th session of the Basel Technical Working Group in Kuala Lumpur, in April 1996, scrap lead acid batteries were placed in the "A" list of wastes. The "A" list is the group of wastes which are included in the Basel Ban due to their hazardous nature. Therefore, it is clear that under the Basel Convention, LAB are banned from export from an OECD country such as the U.S., to a non-OECD country, such as Brazil.

2.3 U.S. Regulations

Under U.S. regulations, used LAB are not considered hazardous waste unless they are crushed. In addition, the U.S. is not a Party to the Basel Convention . The U.S. is the only OECD country that has failed to ratify this major environmental treaty. In addition, the U.S. as a non-party would need a bilateral trade agreement with a Basel party in order to export any hazardous waste. There is no such agreement between U.S. and Brazil. Despite this, an official with the U.S. Department of State has said he believes that if the U.S. were properly notified of another country's import ban, through the Basel Secretariat, that exports from the U.S. would cease. In reality, the U.S. authorities are aware of the Brazilian ban, but so far have continued to allow export. The U.S. is a observer state at the Basel Convention, attend all the scheduled official meetings and receives all communications from the Basel Convention Secretariat. The Brazilian government has informed the Basel Secretariat about its national ban since its 1994. A document from the June 1997 Ad Hoc Committee meeting in Geneva (UNEP/CHWC.1/3/4) regarding the implementation of the Basel Ban confirms that Brazil informed the Basel Secretariat about its national ban. This document was distributed to all parties, observer states, competent authorities and focal points. The U.S. had a delegation attending the meeting. The Brazilian ban on LAB imports is common knowledge, and the U.S. with its close involvement in all aspects of the Basel process should know about it. The constant practice of ignoring national bans is not unique to Brazil. The U.S. also continues to export LAB to India, despite that country's court ordered ban on hazardous waste imports. China has also being target by U.S. wastes prohibited to imports by their national law. In March 1994, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner announced the Administration's intention to ratify the Basel Convention. In her delivery speech at the Washington General Assembly of the Global Legislators for a Balanced Environment (GLOBE). Mrs.Browner said: "The most immediate impact will be to stop the export of about 5,500 tons of spent lead acid batteries and lead waste from batteries. We believe the U.S. must set an example for the world by taking responsibility for our own waste. We have more than enough capacity here. There is no good reason for sending our waste overseas." Later she added. "The current policy can put people in other countries at risk of dangerous exposures to dangerous toxic materials. That has to stop."

3. Contamination by Moura

In response to accusations from local residents, Greenpeace and ASPAN conducted a preliminary study of lead contamination at two Moura sites in August, 1996. The sites were the factories Acumuladores Moura where the batteries are assembled and Metalurgica Bitury where used batteries are recycled, both located in Belo Jardim, Pernambuco. Each sample taken was split, with one of the pair analyzed at Ambiental Laboratorio e Equipamentos Ltda in Sao Paulo, the other at Greenpeace Exeter Lab in Exeter, Great Britain. The results are shown in Table 1. Moura Group's record of contamination in Pernambuco is cause for alarm. In July 1997, Grupo Moura signed a partnership with GNB batteries technologies in the U.S. to form a new company - Moura Baterias Industriais - targeting the batteries market for communication and computer systems in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and others. GNB batteries technologies and Moura are partners in business as well as in a poor historical environmental record. GNB has a number of citations from federal regulators during the past decade including the release of lead oxide and sulfuric acid being pumped out of the plant into the environment.

(3) Table 1. Concentration of Lead -- Moura Plant

Moura (responsible for the manufacturing of new batteries



Sample 1A


4.90 mg/l

3.94 mg/l

Sample 1B


1.10 mg/l

1.74 mg/l

Site of liquid effluent to the community



Sample 2A


56,872.0 mg/kg

25,368.9 mg/kg

Sample 2B


686.0 mg/kg

2,607.9 mg/kg

Metallurgic Bitury (responsible for the recycling of used batteries)



Sample 1C


122,854.0 mg/kg

25,943.9 mg/kg

Sample 1D


29.775.0 mg/kg

20,085.0 mg/kg

Sample 2D


69,924.0 mg/kg

26,386.1 mg/kg

Our data indicates extremely high levels of lead in the effluent samples that were collected near the Acumuladores Moura Factory (Table1). These lead levels greatly exceed the maximum level of lead permitted by the CONAMA Resolution, which is 0.05 mg/l, in effluent to be discharged into waterways. Brazilian legislation does not set limits on the lead concentration of sediments. However, according to Prater and Anderson, the acceptable lead level for sediment which is not considered contaminated is 40 mg/Kg. Using this number as a guideline, the sediment samples collected in our study can be considered extremely high, which indicates significant transport of the metal to the water basin. The levels of lead in the soil samples collected near Metallurgic Bitury varied from 12,2854 up to 29,775 mg/kg. According to the standards used by Great Britain, soil with lead levels above 2,000 mg/kg is considered highly contaminated with the heavy metal. Yet, the preliminary results obtained here indicate a contamination significantly greater than the levels permitted by this legislation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends permanent removal of soils which contain lead at levels greater than 5,000 mg/kg. Unfortunately, Brazilian legislation has not established maximum limits for lead contamination of soil.

4. The Impact of Lead on Health and the Environment

Lead is one of the most pervasive and toxic of all environmental contaminants. Of lead's various pernicious effects, some have been recognized for at least 2,000 years. Both acute and chronic exposure to the metal have been shown to cause metabolic, neurological and neuro-psychological disorders. The classic neurological symptoms of lead exposure are encepalopathy in children and peripheral neurotoxicity in adults. The latter is characterized by loss of muscle control at the extremities, causing foot and wrist drop. Motor nerve dysfunction has been reported in people with blood lead levels of 50 - 70 ug/dl. The physiological effects of lead are many. Lead interferes with hemoglobin production, resulting in anemia, at blood lead levels of 60 - 80 ug/dl. Uric acid excretion is impaired following lead exposure due to irreversible damage to the nephrons of the kidney. And although evidence is limited that lead is a carcinogen, cancer of the kidney is associated with lead exposure. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), infants and preschool children are an especially high risk group for lead intake and absorption. Children are at a greater risk of lead poisoning than adults, because they absorb about 50% of lead compared to 10% in adults. Recent scientific evidence suggests that adverse effects occur in children with a lead concentration in the blood as low as 10 ug/dl, levels lower than originally reported. Potential complications in proper development include decreased intelligence, impaired neurobehavioral development, decreased stature and growth as well as impaired ability to maintain a steady posture. Higher levels of lead in the blood can damage the central nervous system, kidneys and hemotopoietic system in children. Children with blood levels of lead greater than 80 ug/ml, can enter coma, convulsions and even death. Because lead freely crosses the placenta, fetal development is severely affected by lead exposure. High blood levels during pregnancy are correlated with stillbirth, miscarriage, and central nervous system damage of the fetus and evidence suggests that fetal brain tissue is highly sensitive to lead poisoning. In addition, paternal blood levels are related to congenital malformations of children, possibly due to interference of sperm development. Workers in lead smelting and battery recycling plants usually exhibit the highest and most prolonged exposures to lead. But in addition, the population living near smelters, may also be exposed to high lead levels. The air, water, soil and even vegetation in the vicinity of lead smelters are often highly contaminated with the heavy metal thereby posing serious threats for the people who live, work and play in the areas where lead smelters operate.

5. The Commerce and the Economy of Used Batteries

The principal factors supporting the lead battery waste trade are typical of other waste trade schemes. In developed countries, the costs of adhering to occupational and environmental regulations are increasing for battery recycling industries, whereas the price offered for recycled lead remains low. Secondary lead smelters are simply not profitable in many industrialized nations. Battery brokers are finding more profitable markets in places where workers are paid little and where enforcement of environmental and workplace regulations are lacking. In industrialized nations, the collection of used lead batteries is generally well organized. Countries such as Sweden, Germany and Italy operate levy systems, which are related to lead prices. When the price of lead is so low that recycling lead is not economic, a levy is imposed on new batteries to finances the recycling of used batteries. In Great Britain, where a levy system does not exist, car repair shops and scrap metal dealers collect used batteries. In the United States, many states require retailers to accept used car batteries when customers purchase new batteries. According to the Battery Council International, several American states even require a cash deposit on new battery purchases; the deposit is refunded to the consumer once the battery is used and returned to the retailer. Clearly, the situation in industrialized countries contrasts the circumstances of battery disposal in many developing countries, where batteries are often processed in backyard smelters or dumped indiscriminately. In developing countries, the absence of an efficient battery collection system at the national level leads most battery recyclers to seek used car battery imports from industrialized nations as cheaper source of lead. In highly industrialized countries, the recycling of lead is entering a crisis due to the increased costs of adherence to environmental regulations. These high costs are driving the secondary lead industry out of the U.S.A. The United States Bureau of Mines echoed this argument, reporting that "foreign smelters can afford to bid a higher price for scrap because their capital, labor and environmental costs are lower than U.S. producers". In summary, the lack of more expensive equipment to protect both the health of workers and the environment allows companies in developing countries to deliver higher prices for used batteries. Naturally, this market advantage in developing countries translates into health risks for workers and the population living near factories as well as environmental damage. And, if we were to calculate, the numbers would show that the costs to human and environmental health greatly exceed the profits that lead recycling companies gain. However, these companies do not balance the total costs, therefore recycled batteries continue to be an excellent business in Brazil, the Philippines, Indonesia and other "newly industrialized countries". Brazil is not a lead producing country. Therefore, the country relies on the importation of lead as well as the recycling of lead scrap locally available. According to the non-ferrous metal industry, the manufacturing of lead acid batteries is responsible for 70% of the lead consumption in the country. There are no selective collection programs in place to ensure that used batteries locally available are not mixed with municipal solid waste or disposed in landfills or incinerators.

6. Recommendations

1) The Brazilian government should stop immediately all imports of used lead acid batteries from the U.S. All illegal imports should be returned to the sender - the U.S.

2)The U.S. should respect the Basel Convention and the Brazilian national waste import ban and cease all exports of used lead acid batteries to non-OECD countries.

3) Brazil should develop a non-ferrous metals policy to address its need for lead. Brazil should not source its current need of lead from imported hazardous wastes such as used batteries.

4) In order to minimize the generation of hazardous wastes in volume and toxicity, alternative technologies to the lead based batteries should be developed. Some countries are moving towards a phase-out in the use of toxic heavy metals such as lead.

5)While the alternative batteries are not available the Brazilian government should establish a national collection program for lead acid batteries. The scrap batteries should only be sent to facilities operating under strict environmental legislation.



(1) All U.S. export data provided by The International Trade Information Service, a project of the non-profit Tides Center, was formed in 1995 to investigate and expose the social and environmental impacts of international trade. Previous reports involving ITIS research include three ground-breaking reports on the production and trade of ozone-depleting chemicals (two in collaboration with Ozone Action, one with Greenpeace International); "The World Bank's Juggernaut," a collaboration with SEEN which exposes how multilateral and bilateral aid, combined with transnational corporate interests, is turning a region of India into a "toxic colony" designed to provide G-7 countries with cheap commodities; and "A Day in the Life of U.S.-Indonesia Trade," an independent report on the social and environmental repercussions of typical day's commerce between two countries. ITIS also provides background reports for numerous non-profit organizations on a wide variety of subjects. For more information, please contact:

ITIS, P.O. Box 658, Southwest Harbor, ME, 04609, USA.
Phone: 1-207-244-3106 (Maine) 1-202-234-2847 (Wash,D.C).
Fax: 1-800-861-9611. E-mail: <>.

(2) International Trade Partners from Medley, Florida. International Trade Partners is registered as a five employees operation in the business of selling scrap metal and batteries. Further research onto this small trading company indicated most of their activities were restricted to battery exports to Brazil.

International Trade Partners
9140 NW South River Dr., Miami FL 33166-2108.
Phone 305-883-4953.
President: Milton Klein
Registered for Batteries-Storage-Retail (553116) and Scrap Metals & Iron (509313).

(3) Data on federal violations from all court cases filed by the Dept. of Justice on behalf of EPA in civil court. Includes EPA Administrative Actions, the CERCLA list of potential and actual sites that might have to be cleaned up under Superfund and records from ERNS (Emergency Response Notification System) of phone calls reporting toxic releases and spills to the National Response Center.

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