7NEWS INVESTIGATION: San Pedro’s Dangerous Secret
It's Belize's richest tourist treasure, and a lot of San Pedro's charm has to do with the fact that the streets are not paved, and mostly free of the traffic that suffocates other international tourist destinations.
For all these years, the answer to San Pedro's easy going way of life has been golf carts and just about everyone on the island moves around on these 4 wheeled minis. But while they appear to be a sound choice that's both leisurely and environmentally harmless, there's a downside to the golf cart that could see paradise lost on San Pedro Alfonso Noble reports from the most "unpretty" part of La Isla Bonita.
Alfonso Noble Reporting, [From San Pedro Town]
The island of San Pedro; it runs mostly on these, golf carts, noiseless pollution-less conveyances. It's almost a picture perfect mode of transportation. But beneath the serene, tranquil and postcard perfect exterior of the quaint tropical paradise running on golf carts lies its dirty and dangerous underside: while they appear to be the perfect vehicles, these golf carts are not. They run on batteries, as many as six at a time. For San Pedro that's bad news because island authorities have no way of properly disposing of the batteries.
Elsa Paz, San Pedro Town Mayor
“We find that it’s a big problem here on the island.”
A big problem because this is what's presently happening with the batteries: they are being stock piled on this compound at the back of the island. Presently, the site known as the barracks holds 3,000 batteries.
“We are accumulating them at the barracks. We are just putting them together and then from there we will ship them to Belize. We have more than 2,000 at the moment because the last time we called Belize they didn’t have space where they usually put them so we still have them here.”
It does not seem like a big deal but it is because of the lead in the batteries. Ambrose Tillett is an environmental consultant.
Ambrose Tillet, Environmental Consultant
“The biggest problem of course is the lead because as you know lead poisoning is something that is very very serious. Lead is a heavy metal and the way how heavy metal poison works is that they mimic some important mineral in humans and animals. In the case of lead it mimics what calcium does. It is absorbed the way calcium is and it inhibits calcium from doing what it is supposed to do. So the function of certain organs, when you absorb lead into the system, it gets deposited into bones and teeth where calcium goes but also soft tissues like your kidneys, and then your brain because it uses calcium to do its neuro-transmission across bones into liver and into the bone marrow. It eventually replaces calcium and then it inhibits calcium from doing what it is supposed to do. So the area that it affects the most is the nervous system because calcium is so important for neuro-transmission. But the biggest issue is lead poisoning. The acid is an issue to an extent that its toxic, it damages your skin and so on, but of course the concentration would have to be large enough for you to be…in other words a child would have to pick up a battery and the acid spills on their hand and then the child gets hurt. But if it dissipates into the environment, the dilution is pretty low. The problem however is that as a battery is being used during its life the lead electrodes become soluble into the electrolyte and so when the sulphuric acid is released it has lead in it. So again lead is the problem you see. Lead is the problem.”
A problem acute in San Pedro because of its location, that is: it’s close to the barrier reef and it's an island.
“The marine environment in San Pedro because it’s a reef and because the mangrove area is a very sensitive eco-system and then human intervention produces a large concenyt5ation of lead which is what happens when you throw batteries into the sea or the mangrove swamp. What you are really doing is releasing lead into the environment. And eventhough San Pedro is a very large island, by nature’s standards, that’s a huge concentration of lead going into a very sensitive eco-system. What you are really doing is in a way effectively destroying the reef over time. It is the same situation with humans where lead competes with calcium, in its absorption and its function, the same thing will happen with other animals. So really you are setting yourself up to eventually over time to destroy that ecosystem.”
Patricia Verde, town administrator for San Pedro, says that her office has already had complaints of these harmful practices with batteries being disposed of improperly.
Patricia Verde, Town Administrator
“Instead of doing the proper procedures of taking it to the barracks, so that as we get a certain amount we can dispose of them to the city and further it on from there, they just decide to throw it in the water just like that. The community needs more education as to what to do with their batteries. The council has made requests or has advised the public that if they have a number of batteries all they need to do is take it to the barracks. If they don’t have transportation, they can just put it on the side of their homes and our trucks will pick it up and take it to the barracks. Also I feel that some people don’t take into consideration that disposing them in the water is very contaminating and maybe even they themselves will go back at that same lagoon and fish and eat the same fish that ate the lead from the batteries they threw in there. Because we are an island we need to carry out different activities like the disposal of the batteries. And almost most importantly because we are a tourist destination, the more we destroy what we have the less profitable our future will be.”
And Tillett adds that while there are risks associated with the use of acid/lead batteries there are ways of dealing with the problem.
“The people who are distributors or manufacturers of batteries have to take and the government should insist they take responsibility for people whenever they buy a battery to also leave the old one. And then they would have the proper system in place to take apart the battery, remove the lead, remove the acid, and to remove the plastics, and to recycle each and all of these components. Pretty much about 97% of a battery is recycled. You can take it apart and take out pretty much all the components and make them back into the original component. So it is constantly being reused. It is made into a battery, it is broken down into its constituents, and its made back into a battery. That is how everybody else does it.”
Everybody else, except those here in san Pedro where convenience may have eclipsed concern for the environment and led everyone to disregard paradise’s dirty little secret.
Belize's environmental laws are based on the 'polluter pays principle,' where the ultimate responsibility for the disposal of batteries would seem to lie with the supplier.