Many families living in a commune in northern Vietnam have escaped poverty by making it the country’s biggest battery recycling hub, but could be paying a high price for their affluence.
There are no official statistics yet, but people in Chi Dao Commune in Hung Yen Province near Hanoi count dozens of deaths from cancer in the past few years while many others suffer from lead poisoning.
Living in a country with poor recycling infrastructure, nearly 500 families in the commune have taken the business into their own hands, processing on an industrial scale but manually, without worrying about the environmental repercussions.
Owners of the recycling plants say they produce around 100 tons of lead a day, most of which is sold to China.
They travel all over the country every day to bring back truckloads of used batteries from communications devices and vehicles, mostly from electric bikes, whose batteries have a high lead content.
Some families decompose the batteries before giving the core parts to others to burn them down for lead.
The workplace of a man named Khoa is situated deep in an alley and closed off except for the main door, which welcomes visitors with the strong odor of sulfuric acid.
Several people wearing plastic gloves and face masks were hammering away at batteries to separate their frame from the core.
They threw the frames all over the floor and poured the acid solution into local sewers.
Several of the workers said they know they run the risk of getting respiratory diseases from inhaling poisonous gas.
Those working directly with the cores, which contain acid solutions and lead, can only do the job for a maximum of five years, they said.
Tests conducted by the US-based Pure Earth Institute, which works against toxic pollution and was formerly known as Blacksmith, found 209 children in just one village in the commune suffering from lead exposure.
Khuc Chi Thong, director of the district preventive health center, said funding and technical limitations meant the survey was small.
“But it is an alarming figure.”
Other tests done by experts from the Ministry of Health on 109 local children under 10 found the lead content in their blood to be two to seven times higher than safe levels.
The lead content was 3.5 times higher than the permitted limit in the air, 10 times in the soil and 4.6 times in some food samples.
Children are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults as the heavy metal stays longer in them. It largely affects their physical and mental development and the treatment can take a long time, according to health experts.
Young adults seem to be another group of victims there. An unofficial count by local people found at least 38 of them had died the last four years due to cancer of the lungs, liver, throat, and stomach.
Le Huy Guong, a local, said the business provides locals with stable incomes that are “enough to spend and save.”
But it is destroying the environment because people are casual about the threat, he said.
“The terrifying part is when workers bring lead bars still soaked in acid to wash in local ponds and streams.
“Many families keep those bars inside their houses and under their beds and feel okay to live and eat in there.”
Commune authorities tried to fix the problem four years ago by allotting the recyclers a 21-hectare industrial zone a kilometer away from houses.
But they have not found anyone to invest in infrastructure and facilities, with the result that few people have moved their business there.