Living With The Side Effects Of Lithium-ion Batteries

Lithium carbonate tablets & lithium-ion battery. Image credits:Viewpoints; and, Wikipedia

There is so much excitement and so little risk management awareness shown for the prospects of a future driven by lithium battery-powered vehicles. It makes sense that prospective risks of that future remain overlooked, though, because the commercial success of lithium-ion batteries in personal electronics is so new, and because the application of lithium-ion batteries in commercially sold vehicles involves a trivial volume of lithium. The lithium battery concerns to-date are constrained to a products safety and air shipping safety context.

What might be the environmental side effects of a highly lithium-dependent transportation system? Toss out the noun "lithium" and the most common association is likely to be lithium carbonate, which has long been used to treat bipolar disorder (the manic episodes; not the depressive ones). There are side effects associated with that medical treatment; and we'd be crazy not to confront the possible future side-effects of a lithium powered fleet so as to better manage those risks. (Some of most dangerous potential side effects - politically and medically toxic things we could end up living with for centuries - are on the public record - and the less visible hazards can be reasonably speculated upon.)

As for the good news about lithium, I've captured several positive lithium posts from and put them at the bottom of this post. US foreign policy is the biggest and closest risk in my view. China, Chile, and Argentina are today's major world lithium producers. Bolivia, however, is poised to dominate the lithium carbonate supply chain of the transportation industry. China and Cuba have their noses under that tent. Background.
Actually, the possible side effects of lithium carbonate, as drug, are worth looking at first, as they indicate the environmental and human health risks of greatest concern in a lithium powered future. Take the time to read the following description of the toxicity of lithium carbonate, from

Outpatients and their families should be warned that the patient must discontinue Lithium therapy and contact his physician if such clinical signs of Lithium toxicity as diarrhea, vomiting, tremor, mild ataxia, drowsiness, or muscular weakness occur.

Lithium may prolong the effects of neuromuscular blocking agents. Therefore, neuromuscular blocking agents should be given with caution to patients receiving Lithium.
Usage in Pregnancy

Adverse effects on nidation in rats, embryo viability in mice, and metabolism in vitro of rat testis and human spermatozoa have been attributed to Lithium, as have teratogenicity in submammalian species and cleft palate in mice.

In humans, Lithium may cause fetal harm when administered to a pregnant woman. Data from Lithium birth registries suggest an increase in cardiac and other anomalies especially Ebstein's anomaly. If this drug is used in women of childbearing potential, or during pregnancy, or if a patient becomes pregnant while taking this drug, the patient should be apprised by their physician of the potential hazard to the fetus.

Lithium is excreted in human milk
. Nursing should not be undertaken during Lithium therapy except in rare and unusual circumstances where, in the view of the physician, the potential benefits to the mother outweigh possible hazard to the infant or neonate. Signs and symptoms of Lithium toxicity such as hypertonia, hypothermia, cyanosis and ECG changes have been reported in some infants and neonates.

Where does lithium carbonate come from and where will it come from in the future? Per this cite from ResearchInChina:
Chile, China and Argentina are the top three countries in terms of production capacity of lithium carbonate. In 2007, the three countries met 94% of the world's total demand of lithium carbonate. Of the three countries, China saw the fastest growth in its lithium carbonate production capacity and its share in the global lithium carbonate market increased to 26% in 2007 from 21% in 2006.
Back to foreign policy.
I'm no foreign policy expert; but the risks for world trade relations posed seem obvious. Understanding foreign policy risks was made easier because of a well written and highly worthwhile article from the Miami New Times: Lithium from Bolivia could reshape Miami and the world. This sentence pretty much captures it. "For hundreds of years, Bolivia's natural resources have brought little more than pain and suffering." The result:
When Morales pushed through a new constitution last year, Quisbert made sure it included a provision giving Indians control of natural resources in their ancestral areas. "The reason we reject much foreign investment is they never give back to the community. They only take," Quisbert says. "We dream of a project owned by Bolivia that gives back to the people."
Remember that part about China having it's nose under Bolivia's tent? China.Org.CNN reported last fall that
There is plenty of room to explore further mutually beneficial development between China and Ecuador, Jia Qinglin, China's top political adviser, said in Quito on Tuesday.

Jia, chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) National Committee, met with Ecuador's President Rafael Correa and Speaker of the Ecuadorian National Congress Fernando Cordero during his visit here.

All agreed to work together to achieve better-balanced trade and broaden the fields of cooperation

Think that might have to do with the fact that Bolivia has almost half of the world's proven reserves of lithium carbonate, in a readily extractable and benefacted form (brine)?

Memo to State Department:
What's the policy mesh for China versus South America, relative to lithium batteries? Do we expect vehicle lithium batteries to mainly be made in and recycled in China or will we be able work with Eva Morales?

Waste battery collection, storage, and recycling are key exposure concerns.
Think ahead 40 or 50 years, so a time when half the US car fleet is electrified to varying degrees. There will be many vehicle battery reclamation centers and perhaps several lithium battery recycling centers - the kind where hammer mills smash them open to extract the anodes and electrolyte. (Now would be a good time to go back and read the toxicity summary above if you skipped that.) I raise this point because there are going to be workers handling every aspect and doing process cleanup. Will they be using rinse water? Is aquatic toxicity from effluent discharge a concern? What about drinking water contamination potential?

Cleanups can be very expensive.
Here's a recent EPA record of decision on the need to perform a 7 million dollar cleanup of an old Pennsylvania lithium processing site, where "Lithium, boron and chromium were also detected in off-site public and private wells." You can read a detailed CDC risk assessment of the site's contamination here. My bottom line is this. The average person reading the linked CDC health risk assessment for lithium exposure via groundwater consumption would finish those paragraphs with no more insight than he began with. Obviously 'more data is needed.' If we're riding into a lithium powered future, a better risk management understanding is needed: especially related to handling crash scene cleanups, garage fires, and recycling center management. But, who will provide this understanding in a fashion which is credible and understandible for the US consumer and which does not conflict with information offered by all supply chain members? Let's review the possibilities.

  1. Chinese government, which now is the dominant lithium producer [FAIL]

  2. Argentinian or Chilean producers, which are substantial producers [FAIL]

  3. Bolivian government [FAIL]

  4. Japanese car makers [FAIL]

  5. US car makers [Maybe]

  6. US battery makers [can't afford it yet]

  7. US government [???]

The US Congress is showing concerns about air shipping risks associated with the new lithium batteries found in personal electronics.

There have been tragic lab accidents associated with using lithium in research.

I have not been able to find any indication of an industry consensus standard process begun for total lithium battery supply chain safety and environmental management. If anyone knows of such. please to leave a comment for our readers.

On reflection, I see that it is a very good circumstance that we have many years of experience with lithium toxicity, owing to its use as a drug. Certainly helps with understanding the carbonate salt, which is the starting point and very likely the basic output of a battery recycling industry. Quite a dissimilar situation than the lead and lead salts resulting from lead acid batteries.

Note : that I resisted the impulse to joke about coincidental reductions in road rage!

Additional posts about Bolivia and lithium batteries.
Bolivia's Lithium Reserves Could Power Electric Car Boom :
Bolivia has Enough Lithium for 4.8 Billion Electric Cars
Bolivia Enters the Cola War With New "Coca-Colla" :
See You in Cochabamba! Evo Morales Plans Bolivian Alternative ...

Tags: Argentina | Bolivia | Chile | China | Japan