Hey Mr. Green,
I think you are an idiot for recommending hybrid or electric cars. Have you ever seen the inside of car-battery factories? Have you seen the health problems that their workers face? Have you seen the impact of the waste?
--Dr. Pollution in Manasquan, New Jersey
Such heartfelt, warm reader reactions are welcome. Frankly, I'm grateful to have never entered a battery factory, especially one that's a hypertoxic sweatshop in a developing country.
Any type of battery can be treacherous if recklessly produced or poorly recycled. Lead is the major ingredient in batteries for ordinary cars, nickel for hybrids, and lithium for plug-ins. Lead is by far the most toxic, nickel less so, and lithium the least, but the nickel and lithium batteries do contain some toxic metals, including cobalt and manganese.
With nearly a 90 percent recycling rate, lead batteries ought to be a success story. But lead is still released by many facilities that handle it, though such operations must upgrade to comply with new EPA air standards. The insides of U.S. lead-battery factories, however, remain regulated by 33-year-old Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, which allow workers to be exposed to lead levels that some consider unsafe.
Some used lead batteries aren't recycled domestically but exported to developing nations that have lax safety standards. Millions of batteries are now made in these countries, which puts their workers in grave danger. In China, for instance, battery-plant workers and children nearby have experienced episodes of lead poisoning. Typically, lead-battery processors in developing countries don't comply with the equivalent of U.S. standards.
Regardless of battery type, we should tighten regulations on lead batteries and stop exporting used ones to nations with weak safety rules. While a perfect vehicle-power solution eludes us, when you compare the damage done by hybrid and EV batteries with that done by burning fossil fuel, the trade-off seems worth it to me. And thus I'll continue to favor hybrids and EVs. I won't, however, debate the question of my idiocy. Only an idiot would do that.