Thiaroye Sur Mer, Senegal: First, it took the animals. Goats fell silent and refused to stand up. Chickens died en masse. Street dogs disappeared.
Then it took the children. Toddlers stopped talking and their legs gave out. Women birthed stillborns. Infants withered and died.
The mysterious illness killed 18 children in this town on the fringes of Dakar, Senegal’s capital, before anyone in the outside world noticed. When they did—when the TV news aired parents’ angry pleas for an investigation, when the doctors ordered more tests, when the West sent health experts—they did not find malaria, or polio, or AIDS, or any of the diseases that kill the poor of Africa. They found lead.
The dirt here is laced with lead left over from years of extracting it from old car batteries. So when the price of lead quadrupled over five years, residents started digging up the earth to get at it. The World Health Organization says the area is still contaminated, 10 months after a government clean-up.
The tragedy gives a glimpse at how the globalization of a tool—the car battery—can wreak havoc in the developing world.
As the demand for cars has increased, so has the demand for lead-acid car batteries. About 70% of the lead manufactured worldwide goes into car batteries.
Both the manufacturing and the recycling of these batteries has moved mostly to developing countries.
Between 2005 and 2006, four waves of lead poisoning involving batteries were reported in China. And in the Vietnamese village of Dong Mai, lead smelting left 500 people with chronic illnesses and 25 children with brain damage, according to San Francisco-based OK International, which works on environmental standards for battery making.
For years, Thiaroye Sur Mer’s blacksmiths extracted lead and remoulded it into weights for fishing nets. This left the dirt of Thiaroye dense with small lead particles.
Then the price of lead climbed, and traders from India came and offered to buy bits of lead by the bag for 60 cents a kg, says Coumba Diaw, a middle-aged mother of two.
So Diaw dug up the dirt with a shovel and carried bags of it back to her house. It took just an hour of sifting to make what she did in a day of selling vegetables at the market. She kept her two daughters nearby as she worked. Women all over the neighbourhood did the same, creating clouds of lead.
Then the sicknesses started. The deaths came, one after another, over the five months through March.
In richer countries, recycling of lead batteries is regulated. “It’s when you get to Third World countries where you don’t have regulations or attempts to control the movement of this product that you see these kind of tragedies occurring,” says Maurice Desmarais, executive director of Battery Council International, a US-based trade group.