Toxic Free Trade Targets Children

12/25/2011 01:37 pm ET | Updated Feb 24, 2012

The flow of goods and services has an ugly underbelly that isn't part of the balance sheet. Under the radar is the flow of byproducts of our consumption, toxic waste that finds a home wherever regulations are most lax. The collateral damage of this toxic free trade is borne most heavily by children.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Mexico where, as the New York Times recently reported, the recycling of spent car batteries is spewing the heavy metal lead into neighborhoods where kids live and go to school. Mexico is getting this toxic trade because the USEPA clamped down on domestic car battery recyclers. Rather than comply, the marketplace goes elsewhere in its attempt to flee regulation and cost. Companies can claim environmental stewardship all they want but such blatant disregard for environment and public health can do nothing but breed skepticism. Mexico receives 20 million spent car batteries a year from the U.S. with much of that going to chop shop factories which use the crudest techniques to liberate and recycle the lead. The plumes of particulate lead that leave these smelters contaminates the ground where children play, getting into their bodies and depositing in their brain. This affects their ability to concentrate and learn, and increases the chances that they will never leave the wrong side of town.

We learned all this 30 years ago when blood lead levels in U.S. children were found elevated in concentric rings around battery recycling plants. This lead to a clamping down on lead smelters and cleaning up of lead-contaminated neighborhoods. Hundreds of millions of dollars later, we now know how foolish and damaging it was to allow lead to escape from these operations. So we regulate this domestically but allow free trade to turn lead recycling into a commodity that seeks maximal profit on the world market. Of course no one is counting the costs of lost intelligence to local populations and the bigger social implications -- for example, might this fuel the Mexican drug trade (lead exposure in childhood is associated with later criminal behavior and prison time). Dumping toxics into the marketplace can come back to haunt the consumer-disposers, an example being the recycling of our computer waste in chop shop operations in China, the heavy metals finding their way into consumer goods shipped back to the U.S.

The free ride that free trade offers toxics can be stopped by putting up some barriers. There is no reason why inherently dangerous waste should be allowed transport overseas for cheap disposal or recycling. If we create it, we should deal with it, or at least have a way to certify that it is dealt with responsibly. We have a conscience when it comes to our jeans being made in overseas child sweat shops; how could we not have a conscience about our toxic waste damaging far away young minds? The extra cost of proper recycling lead acid batteries can be passed onto the consumer as a healthy reminder that the battery that runs your car is 40 pounds of powerful nerve poison. The full life cycle costs of a product need to be seen as corporate and consumer responsibilities; we should not allow market forces to hide these costs in a Mexican barrio.

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