Indonesia's Battery Recyclers Causing Major Health Problems

A tradition of metalworking has left a historic village contaminated with high doses of lead. Now the threat continues from battery recyclers spewing toxic smoke.

KEBASEN, INDONESIA. Smoke billows from the chimney of the small battery smelter, carrying particles of lead, plastic, and sulfuric acid into the air. More dense smoke pours from the open furnace into the smelter’s main room, threatening to engulf two workers as they shovel the lead cells of car batteries into the glowing fire.

The gray cloud drifts over the countryside in Central Java, landing on rice fields and villages. Nearby residents complain that the haze burns their eyes, makes them dizzy, and gives them headaches.

“We are upset about the smoke,” says Samsuri, 40, who lives in the farming village of Tegalwangi, about half a mile from the recycling compound, run by Lut Putra Solder. “It makes it difficult to breathe and sometimes makes us sick.”

In this two-part series, we reveal how poisonous pollutants are endangering people’s health in Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest population.  READ Part 1 - INDONESIA'S GOLD MINES ARE CAUSING BIRTH DEFECTS.

The Garuda Jaya plant in Kebasen is one of three battery smelters operating at the compound on the outskirts of the Central Java city of Tegal. None has scrubbers on the chimneys to trap the lead dust or other hazardous materials. Nor do they have permits to operate, authorities say.

Smelters like this are notorious for emitting high concentrations of lead and other toxic substances into the air. Lead, a major component of vehicle batteries, has long been known to harm brains, with even low doses linked to learning and behavioral problems in children.

The unlicensed operations illustrate how difficult it is in Indonesia to clean up even well-known hazards. Local government officials relocated the lead recyclers here in 2011 to end an even more hazardous practice: backyard battery smelting in the nearby village of Pesarean. For 44 years, villagers there smelted lead acid batteries in their yards and homes, turning their historic metalworking village into a toxic waste site.

The contamination remains, surrounding an important historic site, the tomb of Amangkurat I—the ruthless sultan of Mataram who ruled the Islamic kingdom of Java for more than two decades in the mid-1600s.

During the sultan’s time, Pesarean was famous for the manufacture of Javanese daggers, known as kris.

Its long tradition of metalworking continues with dozens of household smelters that still operate in the village. Shops in the surrounding villages are filled with pots, knives, and other metal goods made in the historic village.

High Risk for Children
Recycling of lead acid batteries is one of the major toxic problems plaguing Indonesia, along with much of the developing world, says Richard Fuller, founder and president of Pure Earth (formerly Blacksmith Institute), a New York-based nonprofit that is helping to clean up the village. Tens of thousands of battery smelters are operating without environmental safeguards worldwide, he says.

Nurul Atphia, 9, stands in front of stairs at the mosque in Pesarean, a historic metalworking village that has been contaminated by backyard lead battery smelting. [Photograph by larry c. Price]

The World Health Organization estimates that lead exposure contributes to 600,000 new cases a year of intellectual disabilities in children. Health experts say there is no safe exposure level for lead and that even relatively low levels can cause serious, sometimes irreversible, damage to developing brains.

In addition to learning problems and reduced IQs, children exposed to lead have a higher risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and antisocial and criminal behavior, says Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada and a leading expert on lead exposure.

Scores of illegal battery recycling facilities operate in Indonesia, including 34 in the greater Jakarta area alone, according to Pure Earth. All 10 of the country’s worst toxic sites are battery recyclers, the group says.

Tuti Hendrawati Mintarsih, director general of hazardous waste in Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, acknowledges the problem but says authorities can’t close illegal smelters because too many people would lose jobs and the operators would move to new, hidden locations.

This is a “social problem,” she says. “When we remind them not to operate the illegal smelter, we should help them find an alternative job.”

Toxic Village
Today in Pesarean, which is home to about a thousand people, gray soil is everywhere. The dusty footpaths where children run barefoot are dark gray. Fire pits where batteries were burned dot the village. Gray piles of ash and dirt sit where they were dumped years ago. The water in the small village creek runs gray, spilling its waste into a larger stream that flows into the rice fields.

At a primitive recycling plant in Pesarean, a woman sifts the ash left over from the smelting process to retrieve small pieces of metal for resale. [Photograph by larry c. Price]

There are about 200 houses in the village, many of them built on contaminated soil. Even now, residents are building new houses on top of the lead waste.

“It’s poisoning the soil, it's poisoning the water, it's poisoning the air,” says Pesarean village head Agus Sustono, 38, who pushed for an end to the battery smelting. “We can see it with the naked eye.”

Sustono warned residents not to drink the groundwater because of the high lead content. But children say no one has told them not to play in the dirt.

Lead exposure of this magnitude is a “huge and pervasive problem,” says Lanphear. “The gray dust undoubtedly contains high concentrations of lead that contaminate the foods people eat, [and] the air they breathe.”

Although battery smelting has been banned in Pesarean since 2011, lead levels in the soil remain high from the four decades of backyard smelting.

Pure Earth, which has helped clean up contaminated sites in Indonesia and other countries, recently tested 500 locations in the village and found that lead exceeded 100 parts per million in all of the sites. Soil near the village high school measured 5,000 parts per million. A former smelter site 50 yards from the school entrance measured 150,000 parts per million. By contrast, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standard is 400 parts per million for lead in outdoor play areas and 1,200 parts per million for non-play areas.

Workers pour molten lead into ingot molds at the Garuda Jaya smelter, one of three smelters established at the industrial site in Kebasen. [Photograph by larry c. Price]

Blood tests of 46 villagers conducted by Pure Earth last year showed even higher lead levels than in 2011, when the smelting stopped. The average lead level in the blood of people in Pesarean last year was 39.3 micrograms per deciliter, far higher than the 5 micrograms per deciliter used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a guideline for action to protect children from neurological effects.

The aid group and the Environmental Agency of Tegal Regency are drafting a $2 million cleanup plan for Pesarean that would remove about 20,000 cubic meters of contaminated dirt and cover it with clean soil. Work is expected to start next year
Though lead smelting has ended in Pesarean, other metalwork continues. Women sort through piles of junk to separate aluminum, iron, and other usable materials. Men melt the metal over open fires to make ingots, sending acrid smoke into the air. Craftsmen work over small metal forges in the back rooms of their houses, making tools, cookware, machine parts, and anything else that might sell.

Fathoni, 51, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, has lived in Pesarean for 30 years. A former metalworker, he’s now the village gravedigger and has a side job performing massages to relieve hernias. When the battery fires were blazing, he says, the air burned his lungs and made breathing difficult. He remains concerned about how the lead may affect his three grandchildren.

“I’m very worried,” he says. “I know the land is contaminated, and we can’t drink the groundwater. The government should do the cleanup immediately.”

But his neighbor, Sudiono, 75, a longtime smelter operator in Pesarean, says concern over lead is unwarranted. Villagers have been building homes on the gray soil for years, he says, and he doesn’t know anyone who has been harmed. “I started this kind of business when I was 18 and nothing has happened to me,” he says. “People today are looking for problems.”

No Rules
On the northern edge of the LPS compound, the floor of the Garuda Jaya smelter is slippery with battery acid. The workers try to avoid the smoke as it surges into the room.

Daniel Rizal, 26, the manager, says his company came here in 2013 because it could operate without government interference. “In Tegal, there are no rules about smelting lead,” he says.

He says the lead hazard doesn't trouble him. “I’m more worried the government might shut us down,” he says. “I have a family to feed.”

Outside, half-hidden in weeds, a sign erected by a local agency reads: “Warning…!!! Pollution and environmental contamination are damaging our future generations.”

Behind it, lead-laced smoke pours from the Garuda Jaya chimney.

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