By Ashley Bartlett

The popularity of electric vehicles in New Zealand is increasing every year, but is our obsession with electric mobility driving an increase in lead poisoning?

According to New Zealand Transport Agency data, the popularity of electric vehicles in New Zealand has increased by a whopping 4,713% since January 2013. Similarly, reports have shown that the popularity of e-bikes has also increased dramatically as the number of imported e-bikes doubled from 20,000 in 2016 to 40,000 in 2017. These statistics represent a shiny glimmer of hope for many environmentalists and climate change activists who envision an e-powered sustainable future, free from fossil-fuel emissions.

E-enthusiasts claim that the future will be brighter when we make the switch from fossil fuel-powered mobility. Avoiding energy derived from fossil fuels for transportation will significantly decrease greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and reduce the adverse effects associated with climate change. As a result, these proponents of e-transport have boldly stated that electric transport is “cleaner” for the environment and that we should all consider buying one “today”. Considering this emerging hype, it is easy to believe that e-mobility doesn’t contribute to any serious environmental or health effects.

However, manufacturing electric vehicles and bicycles depends on the availability of a large variety of different resources. As the demand for electric transportation increases, the demand for these resources will increase accordingly. Lead is a particularly important resource to consider, as it is required in the lead-acid batteries that are needed to power both forms of e-mobility.

This is concerning because lead is a highly toxic metal that it is known to cause serious and immediate health and environmental problems due to the mining process. The major health concern is poisoning, which occurs through direct contact with the metal, or through ingesting water that has been contaminated throughout the mining process. The environmental issues concerning lead are complex, as contamination of the water supply may be localised or widespread and can occur as a result of airborne lead particles, or direct wastewater discharge from mines into local waterways. There have been many reports of lead-contaminated water due to mines, and if the demand continues to increase, an increase in more mines being built is likely to contribute to more cases of lead contamination. This suggests that it is very important to consider the immediate and long-term environmental and health effects that may occur in a transition to e-transport.

As the environmental and health risks associated with e-transport are potentially very severe to parts of the population, this transforms the issue into an ethical dilemma for us to consider. Is it ethical to drive an industry that is contributing to severe and immediate health issues for local communities near lead mine sites around the world? In other words, is the production and use of personal electric transportation truly better for the environment and the global population? A definitive answer to these questions is difficult to obtain. This is due to the differing interests, values, and ethical lenses used by the various stakeholders involved in the issue. However, these questions remain important for us to ponder in order to determine whether appropriate regulations or legislation exists in order to protect the health of communities, wildlife and our shared environment.

What’s the problem with lead?

Lead contamination is a serious issue as it can cause widespread harm to humans, particularly to young children. Lead poisoning is known medically as Plumbism and it is caused by exposure to lead, which builds up in bodily tissues like bones and teeth. Lead exposure is more dangerous for children as they can absorb as much as 4-5 times as much lead as adults when exposed to the same concentration. At high levels of exposure, the effects of Plumbism are fatal for both adults and children. While at the lower level of exposure, lead is believed to cause a range of injuries across the body, including mental, physical and hormonal damage, which have both immediate and chronic effects. Previously it was believed that a lead concentration in the blood of 5 µg/dL was a “safe level”. However, it is now believed that this level of concentration in the blood is also associated with ongoing and serious lifelong cognitive and learning disabilities. According to the World Health Organisation, there is no known “safe” limit of lead exposure, or concentration in the body.

In addition to causing harm to humans, lead pollution also has a significant environmental impact as it is often associated with water contamination. As part of the mining process, waterways are often contaminated with heavy metals such as lead before being discharged back into the local waterways. This has significant impacts on the wildlife that live in and use the waterways. Once ingested, lead is stored in their bodily tissues and bio-accumulates. This process causes significant disturbances to local ecosystems, as many species die from fatal doses of lead poisoning. As the wildlife move down the waterway, communities who rely on these animals for food can also become contaminated.

Lead particles can also become airborne through the mining process further contributing to water and land contamination. As a result of the mining process, lead particles can also be released into the air. These particles can be carried by the wind until they fall to the ground which further contribute to water contamination, as well as causing soil contamination which increases the risk of lead exposure to both wildlife and humans.

Driving increased lead contamination: lead mining, battery manufacture and e-transport

These effects of lead poisoning and contamination have been felt by a range of communities living near lead mines across the world, from the Global South to the Global North.

In the Global South, the recent severe case of lead poisoning in Torreon, Mexico represents the tragic consequences that over-exposure to lead can cause. The mine in Torreon is owned by Peñoles, one of the world’s leading companies in lead mining and production. In the early 2000’s, after various reports of ill-health from people in the local community, an investigation revealed that there had been widespread lead poisoning of the population due to water contamination. A study published in the renowned Environmental Research journal revealed that the average lead concentration of children in the area was 9.8 µg/dL. This level of concentration is twice as high as the limit that was thought to be safe, until it was proven otherwise. However, what is most concerning is that the highest concentration of lead in a child’s blood was recorded at a level of 25.8 µg/dL. What does this have to do with electric vehicles? Peñoles website proudly states that the lead produced in this facility is used for the manufacture of lead-acid batteries.

Similarly, in the Global North, events of widespread lead contamination have also been experienced by communities living near lead mine sites. Australia is one of the world’s leading producers of lead and one of the major mine sites owned by Nyrstar is located in Port Pirie, South Australia. Recently, the South Australian Government Health Board conducted a study to monitor the lead concentration in the community and announced that over 3000 children had been poisoned by lead within the past decade due to consuming contaminated water.  These figures represent a shocking case of environmental injustice as the effect of this over-exposure will seriously limit the physical and mental capacity of these children for the rest of their lives. Where does the lead produced by Nystar go? As stated on Nyrstar’s website “lead’s future is electric”, as “over 80% of lead produced goes into the lead-acid battery”, which “plays an important part in the starter mechanism for cars” and “electric bicycles”.

A moral roadblock: ethical considerations of e-transport use

Clearly, the evidence of the environmental impacts caused by lead mining brings us back to our questions regarding the ethics of e-mobility. However, determining whether e-mobility is an ethical alternative to regular mobility is difficult with such a large variety of stakeholders involved in the lead and electric mobility supply chain. These stakeholders all have varying interests, and each value such natural resources as lead, energy and water differently. As a result, each stakeholder has a different ethical position in regard to the issue of lead mining, and battery manufacture.

The interests of the local community near mine sites are often divided between those who support the socio-economic benefits of the mine, and those who object to the mining based on health, cultural and/or environmental reasons.

Anyone who owns a car – regular petrol, hybrid or electric – or e-bike is also a stakeholder in this issue as the implications of changes to lead mining will have ramifications across the e-mobility industry. Our cities, towns and lives are built around automotive transport and as such, most of us depend on cars in some way. The growth of the electric and low emission car markets and e-bike markets represents an increasing level of awareness in consumers about the environmental impacts that this form of mobility has on contributing to emissions and climate change. However, as studies have revealed, as people mostly value the autonomy that personal transport offers, it would be unthinkable to phase out lead-acid batteries.

Overseas communities, such as small island nations, that experience the most severe effects of climate change, and environmentalists, are often in support of emissions-reducing alternative technologies. As climate change is one of the most topical issues of our time, it is logical that the focus of the environmental effects of transport have been centred upon reducing GHG emissions.

A regulatory crossroads: where do we go from here?

Evidently with such a broad range of competing values, interests and ethical positions, it is no surprise that environmental and health problems have arisen due to lead mining. Currently, most countries have legislation regarding mining procedures and water quality standards. However, clearly, due to the continued incidence of lead contamination across the world, further regulation is important to ensure both climate justice and environmental justice can be achieved for communities around the world.

In the future, tougher legislation and more severe financial consequences should be imposed upon lead mining companies. This may be a first step to ensuring that the environmental and health risks associated with mining are significantly reduced. This will guarantee that the interests of the majority of the stakeholders can be met, while also ensuring that the water safety of those living near mine sites is maintained.

However, due to the large network of stakeholders and competing interests, determining what further regulations or actions to implement is not clear. As public awareness regarding this issue increases, it is likely that the path to increasing the protection of the environment and communities will be led by a coalition of concerned citizens, with reactive corporations and the local governments following behind. A groundswell of public concern is the most likely catalyst that could encourage e-mobility corporations to seek out sustainably-sourced lead. The introduction of government policies, such as rebates, at a national level that encourage consumers to purchase “sustainable” cars made with sustainably-sourced lead, would also be a probable and effective development in the context of our current global neoliberal economic system.

In conclusion, it does seem apparent that the road to environmental justice is not as straight as the current electric-mobility driving environmentalists are proclaiming.

This article was prepared as part of a postgraduate course on Ethics and Governance in International Development directed by Professor Andreas Neef of the University of Auckland’s Development Studies programme.

Ashley Bartlett is a Postgraduate student in Environmental Management at the University of Auckland. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.