Johnson Controls: Shanghai Plant Not Leaking Lead

By ELAINE KURTENBACH | December 2, 2011

U.S. battery maker Johnson Controls is at odds with Shanghai’s environmental regulator over tests the company says show it was not responsible for severe lead poisoning cases in children discovered earlier this year.

The Milwaukee, Wis.,-based company said Wednesday that an investigation by the China Electric Equipment Industry Association found its battery factory in Shanghai’s eastern suburbs was not the cause of elevated blood-lead levels among children in a nearby community. Instead, it pinned blame on a recycling facility in the area.

Shanghai Environment Bureau official Ju Chunfang, who participated in testing the Johnson Controls plant, questioned the investigation, saying it was not independent. Ju said the bureau began another investigation of its own last week.

Johnson Controls denied Ju’s contention that the company had agreed it was the largest source of lead emissions in the area.

Local officials insisted the plant, which is much larger than other battery factories in the area, had to be the cause of the poisoning cases. In an interview, Ju cited several instances of occasionally high emissions readings and prevailing wind patterns as the reason for that allegation.

Xia Qing, the scientist who led the probe cited by Johnson Controls, said it was commissioned by the Electric Equipment Industry Association and was not paid for by the battery maker.

The tests showed abnormally high lead levels at a waste recycling facility near the community whose children were poisoned, with lead levels three times the current national standard and 10 times a pending stricter national standard. Zinc levels were 15 times national standards.

“I have three conclusions. First, trust the Chinese environmental protection laws. Second, the lead poisonings were not caused by Johnson Controls. And third, pay more attention to the recycling stations and companies,” said Xia, an engineer with the China Research Academy of Environmental Science.

Soaring use of cars and electric scooters is driving strong demand for lead acid batteries, and their production and recycling are a key source of lead contamination.

China shut down hundreds of battery factories last spring after a slew of lead poisoning cases. Many have remained shut.

The lead contamination drew attention after families living in Kanghua New Village, a small block of apartment buildings erected to house farm families moved to make way for an industrial zone, said checks showed many of their children had abnormally high blood lead levels.

The Johnson Controls factory suspended production in September after it reached its annual quota for lead use. The plant has sought permission to expand production, but local environmental officials say such requests will not be approved due to concerns over lead emissions.

Johnson Controls says it intends to resume production in January at the factory, which has an annual capacity of 2.5 million batteries.

“We’ve called our employees back. We’re pretty excited,” said Alex Molinaroli, president of Johnson Controls Power Solutions.

“The results corroborate our own data and prove that emissions from our battery plant could not be the cause of elevated blood-lead levels found in the community,” he said.

Johnson Controls, a major supplier to the automotive industry, had insisted all along that its plant’s emission controls would have prevented any significant contamination.

Production at a second, smaller battery plant in the area had also been stopped.

Kanghua is located just north of the zone and close to chemical, battery and electronics equipment factories.

Johnson Controls earlier said its factory has lead emissions at about one-seventh the Chinese national standard. Employees are regularly tested to ensure their blood lead levels remain low enough.

Some experts say that over time they expect use of lead-acid batteries to be phased out in favor of less toxic and more efficient charging methods, such as lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells.

But such changes could take decades.

Despite its difficulties over the Shanghai plant, the company is expanding in China, with annual capacity due to rise to 10.5 million batteries next year with the addition of a new plant in Changqing. A third plant, under construction, will have a capacity of 6 million batteries, and the company is considering locations for a fourth plant.

(Researcher Fu Ting contributed to this report.)

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