United States companies are sending spent lead batteries to recycling plants in Mexico that do not meet American environmental standards, according to an environmental agency created under the North American Free Trade Agreement, putting Mexican communities at risk.
In a blistering report submitted this week, the agency, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, notes that the United States does not fully follow procedures common among developed nations that treat international battery shipments as hazardous waste. It faults environmental agencies on both sides of the border for lapses in regulation and enforcement. Cross-border trade in lead batteries increased by up to 525 percent from 2004 to 2011, the report said.
The report, which has been circulating in draft form, has been forwarded to the governments of the United States, Canada and Mexico, which have 60 days to object to its publication. An estimated 20 percent of lead acid batteries from the United States now go to Mexico for recycling, according to trade statistics.
"There needs to be better coordination between government agencies and better cross-border tracking," said Evan Lloyd, who was the agency's executive director until late last year and oversaw the yearlong study.
The report highlighted a number of shortcomings: Customs data on the number of batteries crossing the border did not mesh with counts by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Though the E.P.A. requires notice of batteries leaving the United States, there was no effort to make sure that they had arrived at qualified recyclers in Mexico. The data that battery companies sent to the E.P.A. about exports consisted of "piles of paper," Mr. Lloyd said, and it was never amassed into an electronic database that would be "useful to regulators."
Almost all lead acid batteries used in the United States are recycled to extract the lead for reuse because lead is a dangerous pollutant and because it is a valuable commodity. Lead batteries are used in vehicles, cellphone towers and wind turbines.
Since 2008, new United States limits on lead pollution have made domestic recycling complicated and costly. That has helped propel the recycling trade to Mexico, both legally and illegally, environmental groups say, because that country has less stringent limits for lead pollution, and far less vigorous enforcement.
"There's a pretty consistent pattern suggesting that exports are the direct result of U.S. emissions standards," said Perry Gottesfeld, executive director of Occupational Knowledge International, which has led the campaign against lead poisoning internationally. Mr. Gottesfeld noted that a Mexican plant owned by a major American recycler, Johnson Controls Inc., puts out more than 30 times as much lead emissions as its newest plant in the United States.
"What Mexico needs to do is to get its recycling up to U.S. standards, and the U.S. needs to do a much better job of tracking batteries overseas," he said. In an e-mail, Johnson Controls, based in Milwaukee, said it was "modernizing and reinvesting" in the Mexican facility, acquired in 2005, "to reduce its environmental footprint."
The report was initiated in response to a report by Occupational Knowledge International and Fronteras Comunes, a Mexican environmental group, as well as to an investigative article in The New York Times, Mr. Lloyd said. Soil collected by The Times in a school playground near a recycling plant outside Mexico City was found to have lead levels five times those allowed in the United States.
Lead poisoning causes high blood pressure, kidney damage and abdominal pain in adults, and serious developmental delays and behavioral problems in young children. When batteries are broken for recycling, the lead is released as dust and, during melting, as lead-laced emissions.
In the United States, recyclers operate in highly mechanized, tightly sealed plants, with smokestack scrubbers and extensive monitors to detect lead release. Plants in Mexico vary greatly in safety standards, and in some, the recycling process is little more than men with hammers smashing batteries and melting down their contents in furnaces.
In recent months, there have been new efforts to curb the flow of batteries south of the border, though many battery makers have fought that. In response to a draft of the report released late last year, Battery Council International, an industry group, said it opposed "the creation of additional burdensome certification programs."
Last year, the United States General Services Administration, which is responsible for federal vehicles, asked ASTM International, an independent standards agency, to explore a voluntary standard for battery recycling.
But that effort came to naught after the proposal was voted down at an open meeting attended by representatives from industry, government and environmental groups in December. Of the 103 people at the meeting, 49 worked for Johnson Controls.
Correction: February 9, 2013, Saturday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated part of the name of an American recycler cited by Perry Gottesfeld, executive director of Occupational Knowledge International, as the owner of a Mexican plant that puts out more than 30 times as much lead emissions as the company's newest plant in the United States. The American recycling company is Johnson Controls Inc., not Johnson Controls International.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.