Lead smelting in the United States occurs at secondary lead smelters. Rather than producing new lead from raw ore—a practice that U.S. smelters no longer engage in due to environmental regulations—secondary smelters recycle lead that already exists, mostly from lead-acid batteries.
Unfortunately, secondary lead smelting is not safer than primary lead smelting. Workers at secondary smelters are routinely exposed to dangerous levels of lead, which is a powerful neurotoxin. Lead dust and fragments carried home by workers can cause lead poisoning in family members. Lead and other toxic chemicals from smelting facilities can also end up in the air, soil and water, resulting in community health problems and lowered property values.
The head of our Toxics and Environmental Litigation Group, Kevin Hannon, is one of the country’s leading lead smelter attorneys. He has prosecuted lead smelting lawsuits on behalf of individual plaintiffs and groups of plaintiffs for property damage, medical monitoring, and personal injury.
Morgan & Morgan stands for the people and the planet, against the powerful. If you work at or live near a lead smelter and have tested positive for lead, or anyone in your family has tested positive, please contact us for a free case review.
U.S. Lead Smelting Operations
The last primary U.S. lead smelter closed its doors in 2013 after the introduction of new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) air quality standards for lead. The Doe Run Smelter, located in Herculaneum, Missouri, exposed workers and community members to lead contamination for more than 100 years, poisoning local residents and contaminating properties. Its closure came on the heels of a $55 million settlement championed by Morgan & Morgan’s Kevin Hannon.
While primary lead smelters no longer operate in this country, secondary lead smelters continue to operate. There were once hundreds of secondary lead smelters in the United States. However, that number dwindled to 53 in 1991 and 15 in 2011. Today, there are only ten remaining U.S. secondary lead smelters, including facilities at Quemetco, Inc. near Los Angeles, California and Gopher Resource in Tampa, Florida.
Toxins Associated With Lead Smelters
At secondary lead smelters, lead is recovered from used materials and recycled into elemental lead or lead alloys. Although classified as recycling facilities, secondary lead smelters are far from environmentally-friendly. They release lead fragments, lead dust, lead fumes, and other toxic substances such as antimony, arsenic, barium, benzene, cadmium, chromium, mercury, and sulfur dioxide. Some of these substances are associated with cancer, reproductive problems, central nervous system dysfunction, and developmental impacts.
There is no safe level of lead exposure. The effects of lead poisoning are usually irreversible and are especially dangerous to children.
Did a member of your household test positive for lead? You may qualify for a lead poisoning lawsuit.
Hazardous Waste From Lead Smelters
The secondary smelting of lead additionally produces toxic slag, a byproduct of the refining process that is disposed of as hazardous waste. If hazardous waste is not properly stored, pollutants can be released that enter the surrounding environment and contaminate air, soil, food, and water.
Lead Exposure Pathways
Exposure to lead primarily occurs at the following points in the secondary smelting process:
- Crushing lead-acid batteries disperses lead fragments and lead dust. Once airborne, the lead accumulates on workers, nearby surfaces, the soil, and can even blow into nearby towns and agricultural fields, where it contaminates crops and livestock.
- The smelting and refining process creates lead fumes that workers inhale.
- When workers leave the facility and return home, they may carry lead dust on them that sickens family members.
- Wastewater, solid waste, and slag heaps containing lead and heavy metals could make their way into the ground and surface water systems used for bathing, cooking, and drinking.
Lead Smelters Often Flaunt Environmental Standards
Federal and state laws set strict pollution standards for lead smelting facilities. However, smelters have a pattern of violating these standards and endangering the health of workers and community members.
Quemetco California Smelter
EarthJustice details how the Quemetco lead smelter has a history of violating health and safety regulations, including non-compliance with soil and water contamination standards. As a result, “Quemetco’s operations have added, and continue to add, lead and other toxins to people’s bodies, as well as the air, water, and soil,” says EarthJustice.
Gopher Resource Tampa Smelter
At Tampa’s Gopher Resource smelter, workers are exposed to lead levels that far exceed legal limits. According to an 18-month investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and PBS Frontline, workers described finishing a shift caked in lead dust “as though they’d been dunked in powdered sugar.” Gopher allegedly knew its factory produced excessive lead dust, but cut corners anyway. The investigation also found that:
- From 2014 to 2018, 8 out of 10 workers had blood-lead levels that put them at risk of increased blood pressure, kidney problems, or cardiovascular disease.
- Gopher submitted its workers to federally-mandated health checkups but the company doctor did not inform workers that their blood-lead levels put them in danger.
- Gopher established an incentive program that punished workers with high blood-lead levels.
- Lead dust is the suspected cause of lead exposure in more than a dozen children whose parents worked at the Tampa plant.
- Lax regulatory oversight at the factory resulted in missed inspections for lead contamination and overlooked critical safety problems.
Gopher, which operates another smelter in Minnesota, says that its embrace of “green manufacturing” keeps millions of batteries out of landfills. However, since 2010, Hillsborough County, where the Gopher smelter is located, has recorded more than 2,400 lead poisoning cases.
Over the last decade, Hillsborough has had the most adult lead poisoning cases of any county in Florida. In June 2021, a former Gopher lead smelter worker filed a lawsuit on behalf of his young son. The lawsuit claims that Gopher is responsible for exposing the boy to lead and causing serious health problems related to his exposure.