UN Mercury Treaty Phases Out CFLs!

Now CFLs are included on the list of items to be phased out by 2020 due to mercury content!

Wow! Isn’t that rather remarkable for a lamp which all the world has heralded as greener than green? What does Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Project Porchlight and all the other pro-CFL-activists have to say about this?

Rik Gheysens has just made an excellent summary of the whole conference and all that was agreed upon in the treaty: UNEP and CFLs

He also describes the 50 million US$ UN-en.lighten Project that I’ve mentioned earlier, in which Philips & Osram will get paid to flood developing countries with toxic CFLs for another 7 years! (As I hardly think they’re going to hand out free LEDs…) How about some PET solar or LED gravity lamps to replace kerosene, which is one of the stated objectives of the Project? As long as it’s with something truly green and not with toxic CFLs, I’m all for it. But I’m not for replacing safe incandescent lamps with toxic CFLs.

Don’t buy any more CFLs! 

Buy halogen lamps instead and wait for LEDs get better (the LEDs sold now are mostly a ripoff, for which you get very little light of very mediocre quality and untested life span).

CFLs for private use should be banned with no delay.

If incandescent lamps could be banned much quicker than that for no good reason at all, why not make a more decisive effort to get the toxic lamps off the market a s a p?

And the incandescent ban should be lifted immediately, as the incandescent bulb is by far the safest & most environmentally friendly lamp ever made! 

Update Feb 19th: Unfortunately, it seems that the UN treaty limits are set at 5 mg mercury, so that most CFLs will slip through the net anyway:

The wording is not final yet however the draft of the convention recently signed by 140 UN countries proposes a complete ban on manufacture, import and export lamps containing more than 5mg of Mercury from 2020.

International Mercury Convention Picks Wrong Lighting Target


CFL Mercury – Watch Your Feet!

I just stumbled on this link with the story of a man who dropped a too hot CFL globe lamp and could not avoid stepping on the mercury-contaminated glass as he stepped off the chair.

This “smaller than a ball point pen” amont of mercury, which CFL proponents try to dismiss as negligible and totally harmless, rotted away the man’s foot down to the bare bone!

(Warning! Very graphic pictures in the link so open at your own risk!)

Energy Saver Globe – Mercury Exposure

This could happen to you or your children or pets if a CFL was knocked over or dropped and accidentally stepped on.

Update 2014: It may have been the phosphor powder from the inside of the CFL tube which caused the foot to rot, as phosphor stops the blood from coagualting and the would from healing, in combination with the toxic mercury.

The Fluorescent Lighting System

Swedish Mercury

CFL recycling problem update

I wanted to know more about the previously reported recycling problems where people throw CFLs in glass recycling containers in Sweden (same as reported in Denmark a few years ago).

So I called Svensk Glasåtervinning and asked. They said this is still a big problem for them. They had found elevated mercury values in several locations of their recycling facility. I asked about the health of their workers and they said they had been tested for Hg but were OK. The person I spoke with pointed out however, that by the time the glass arrives at the factory, much will already have evaporated and possibly affected the trucking entrepreneurs who collect the containers. I suspect also those using the local recycling facility – some of which are indoors (in residential buildings).

I asked if they had tested the containers (in Sweden called “glass-igloos” due to their round shape). He said that doing such a test had not occurred to them, but that it was a good idea to test at least a few of the thousands of igloos used around Sweden. (I’m thinking that if containers are contaminated by Hg that they may keep contaminating ever new batches of glass, at least in the cold season when it does not evaporate?) Some of that glass is turned into new food grade glass, some into what we call “glass wool” (not sure of the English word) for house insulation.

He said that they do not get reimbursed for all the extra risk, cost and trouble that Hg contamination causes to their glass recycling, and that they were rather frustrated with those who have the producer responsibility not having done enough to inform the general public and supply enough easily accessible recycling opportunities for CFLs.

When it comes to outdoor recycling stations, they are prohibited from doing so by the fact that Hg is classed as hazardous waste, and we can’t have hazardous waste containers sitting unattended on the sidewalk. And so many of those who are not fortunate enough to have a separate bulb recycling bin in their residential building, or a ‘red box’ collected by the local municipality for home owners, throw their CFLs in the glass container instead as many don’t have time, knowledge, opportunity or transportation to take them to an out-of-the-way recycling plant or to one of the often equally out-of-the-way retail chains who collect bulbs for proper recycling (after which the Hg is stored indefinitely).

So I called El-Kretsen, the organisation that has been appointed in Sweden to handle the so-called producer responsibility (according to the WEEE directive). The representative said they are working hard to remedy the situation (and have a PR webpage bragging about this). I suggested they mail all residential building owners in Sweden with information on the importance of adding (and paying a little extra for) a hazardous waste bin in their recycling rooms, information on how to handle mercury contamination, and signs to put up to inform residents. He seemed to think this right-to-the-source approach was way too much work and referred to their their own information- and annual electronic waste collection campaign.

CFL breakage information

After hearing from an aquaintance spotting someone drop a CFL in a supermarket, I thought I’d find out how the leading food chains in Sweden handle such accidents.

Ica’s website has a CFL info page (complete with the usual propaganda lies) that includes info on both recycling and what to do in case of accidents. I called their HQ to ask if it happens that lamps break in their stores and she said “Yes”. I asked if their staff was informed on what to do and she said they were actually planning an information campaign in a few weeks.

Coop’s website only refers to a recycling site for what to do with CFLs after they burn out, nothing about how to handle mercury spills. I called and asked. They said information has been sent out to stores, but when I called one of the biggest Coop supermarkets in Stockholm, the manager could not recall having seen any such information. He said there were no breakages that he was aware of. I asked what they would do if there were and he said “Just sweep up the pieces and throw in the garbage, I guess”-  and also confessed to just tossing burned-out CFLs in the bin at home. I informed him of the mercury content and that mercury is hazardous waste. This jolted a memory that perhaps he’d heard something to that effect… I asked if he could make sure to inform his staff from now on, but he said such an incentive needs to come from HQ. So I tipped HQ off that their biggest competitor is having a campaign soon.

When you think about it, isn’t it rather stunning and alarming that a fairly easily breakable product containing mercury is sold together with food

“CFLs an environmental problem”

This piece of news announced in Swedish press and TV makes me really worried about our future, as it supercedes even my worst fears:

SvD 21 november 2011

Every year 200 000 CFLs are wrongly thrown into glass recycling bins, according to an analysis by Swedish Glassrecycling (SGÅ). This means a health risk for those who work with recycling and a risk that the environmental toxin is spreads in the natural environment, according to Svenska Dagbladet.

The motive for replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs was to save electricity and thereby save the environment, but environmental expert Minna Gillberg condemns the drive for CFLs as “absurd”.

This means a risk not just to recycling workers but actually to everyone. Especially when the recycling bins are indoors, since mercury vaporises at room temperature and contaminates the surrounding area pretty much permanently.

And note: This is happening in SWEDEN  – where we have extremely well organised recycling practices and pride ourselves on being informed, consciensious and spearheading environmental awareness! If even we can’t do it, then again I shudder to imagine what happens to CFLs in poorer countries where many may not even be literate, much less care what happens to their burned-out lamps, or know what to do if they did.

The CFL is a toxic product that should never have been allowed on the market! 

Earlier posts about the mercury in CFLs:




Mercury Problem Worse Than Suspected

Mercury contamination of your home

It now appears that a broken CFL at home is actually more cause for worry than previously thought.

After the now infamous (and cited ad nauseam) accident in Maine, the Maine DEP had its own science team test how much mercury is actually left in a room after breaking a CFL on floors with and without carpets, which resulted in revised cleanup recommendations:

Revised Cleanup Guidance
Maine Compact Fluorescent Lamp Breakage Study (the original report)
Mercury in CFLs – special investigation (long and scary reading, including summary of the Maine Report + interviews & addintional info collected by Invesitate Magazine TV, New Zeeland)
New Electric Politics: The mercury issue (shorter summary of the summary)

Some quotes from the Investigate Magazine summary [my emphases]:

“First off, the often-cited claim that bulbs contain only 5mg of mercury was clarified: it’s an average. (..) The average amount of mercury in a CFL is 5 mg with a range of 0.9 to 18 mg. Obviously, the smaller (in watts) the bulb, the less mercury. Higher power (brighter) bulbs generally have more, although there can be fluctuations between brands as well.”

“‘Mercury concentration in the study room air often exceeds the Maine Ambient Air Guideline (MAAG) of 300 nanograms per cubic meter (ng/m3) for some period of time, with short excursions over 25,000 ng/m3, sometimes over 50,000 ng/m3, and possibly over 100,000 ng/m3 from the breakage of a single compact fluorescent lamp,’ the report confirms.

That’s up to 300 times higher than the recommended safe level of inhalable mercury vapour. From just one light bulb. According to the DEP scientific study, while the 300 ng/m3 limit is the maximum allowable daily dose of mercury for the sake of legislation, there is in fact no known safe level for mercury exposure.”

“To put the exposure in perspective, a study of workers who had been exposed on a regular basis to 33,000 nanograms/m3 of mercury (roughly a third of the 100,000 ng/m3 peak caused by a broken bulb), and compared in a neurological test to a control group of 70 unexposed people, found they scored worse on ‘mental arithmetic, 2-digit search, switching attention, visual choice reaction time and finger tapping’.”

‘Sensitive populations are of particular concern with mercury exposures for a number of reasons.’ ‘Elderly and unhealthy individuals may already be at comprised health and be more susceptible to mercury effects than a healthy individual. For example, mercury does kidney damage which could exacerbate an already existing kidney disease’.

‘Infants and toddlers have much more vulnerable brains.’ ‘Mercury exposures have serious impacts on fetal and infant brain development. Elemental mercury can cross the placenta from a mother to fetus.’ ‘It is well established that the developing organism may be much more sensitive than the adult to neurotoxic agents,’ reports Maine’s DEP study. ‘For example, methylmercury exposure can produce devastating effects in the fetus, including cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, and even death, while producing no or minimal effects in the mother‘.

“The report also noted that following official clean-up guidelines was still not good enough to eliminate the pollution.

‘Although following the pre-study cleanup guidance produces visibly clean flooring surfaces for both wood and carpets (shag and short nap), all types of flooring surfaces tested can retain mercury sources even when visibly clean. Flooring surfaces, once visibly clean, can emit mercury immediately at the source that can be greater than 50,000 ng/m3. Flooring surfaces that still contain mercury sources emit more mercury when agitated than when not agitated. This mercury source in the carpeting has particular significance for children rolling around on a floor, babies crawling, or non mobile infants placed on the floor’.

“[T]he scientists note that the mercury contamination was considerably worse – nearly double in fact – at summertime temperatures (32C) than winter (23C).”

“Additionally (and this is why carpets have to be destroyed), the scientific team repeatedly vacuumed carpets where bulbs had broken, to see if vacuuming did eliminate the residue. They found that even after several attempts, the mercury was still trapped in the carpet fibres. To make matters worse, some of the vacuum cleaners were so contaminated that cleaning them was impossible, meaning not only was the carpet over and out, so was the vacuum cleaner.”

‘If clothing or bedding materials come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb that may stick to the fabric, the clothing or bedding should be thrown away,’ warns the US EPA.

“Maine state government now officially recommends that:

‘…homeowners consider not utilizing fluorescent lamps in situations where they could easily be broken, in bedrooms used by infants, small children or pregnant women, or over carpets in rooms frequented by infants, small children or pregnant women.’

“Then there’s the problem of what to do with the toxic waste. Surprisingly, plastic jars, like large peanut butter containers with screw top lids were little better than plastic bags, also failing to prevent mercury vapour from leaking into the house. The best method of containing bulb waste is inside a glass jar with a hermetically sealed lid.”

Brandy Bridges: ‘They’re not as eco-friendly as we’d like to think. Just the fact that they’re being shipped in trucks and who knows how many cases get dropped? You’re in your local hardware store, and they’re broken on the floor, and you’re walking by unknowing that there’s mercury there, that people are just walking by and breathing in, and a lot of people don’t have a clue’.”

“Perhaps the most dangerous aspect to the CFL mercury issue, however, is not the instant ‘spike’ exposure caused by a breakage, but the effect of a string of breakages over the years on the toxicity of suburban homes. Picture a low income family (…) forced to use CFLs because of the light bulb ban and because they cannot afford even more expensive halogens. Picture a breakage, then try and estimate the odds of a stressed out (or drugged up) householder following proper clean-up and disposal procedures.

“Then picture a few more breakages over the years, none of them dealt with properly. Then try and figure out how much mercury might accumulate in the carpets, floorboards and walls of such a house over a 20 year span. Then try and figure out the impact such poisoning might have on every family that moves through that house, and how many taxpayer dollars might be wasted dealing with the health or crime problems that erupt downstream because of mercury exposure.

“When you buy a house or move into a rental, you won’t know whether the home you’re moving into is contaminated by mercury, unless you go to the extreme expense of getting it tested. Your safety, and your family’s safety, will rely on the ability and willingness of other ordinary [citizens] to properly dispose of mercury laden light bulbs, and you’ll never really know. The real cost is not one light bulb breakage, but how badly affected homes will be after 20 years of amateur attempts to clean up one of the deadliest neurotoxins on the planet. A generation of children crawling on mercury-infested carpets would give new meaning to the phrase, “dumbed-down”.

“On the strength of these scenarios alone, there’s a good case for actually banning the use of CFLs in homes, outright and immediately.”

I couldn’t agree more. And I don’t see how any responsible politician or environmental organisation could either, after getting this new information.


Edit Feb 2013: The reports on mercury-poisoned workers in China moved to: CFL Analysis – Mercury


CFL Analysis – Mercury

Mercury & health

Although the European Commission does not regard it as an immediate risk to the average user, CFLs contain small amounts of mercury and this is a risk, if lamps are broken and mercury escapes into the air and is inhaled (since mercury vapourises at room temperature). Swedish environmental expert Minna Gillberg, adviser to Commissioner Margot Wallström, says all CFL bulbs should be marked with a skull-&-bones label to increase awareness among consumers. [1]

Although the risk of breaking a CFL at home is probably not overwhelmingly huge if people are informed of the risk and take care not to place them in luminaires that are easily knocked over, and though the amount of mercury each bulb contains usually is minute and decreasing with age, even small amounts of mercury vapour may be harmful to inhale, especially for children, pregnant women and sensitive people. Therefore both manufacturers and various national health protection agencies have issued safety instructions in case of CFL (or mercury thermometer) breakage. [2, 3, 4]

How should I deal with a broken CFL?

In the event of an accidental breakage of a CFL, normal good housekeeping is required.

1. Take care to prevent injury from broken glass.

2. Vacate the room and keep children and pets out of the affected area. Shut off central air conditioning system, if you have one.

3. Ventilate the room by opening the windows for at least 15 minutes before clean up.

4. Do not use a vacuum cleaner, but clean up using rubber gloves and aim to avoid creating and inhaling airborne dust as much as possible.

5. On hard surfaces sweep up all particles and glass fragments with stiff cardboard and place everything, including the cardboard, in a plastic bag. Wipe the area with a damp cloth and then add that to the bag. Household cleaning products should be avoided during clean up despite the very small amount of mercury involved. See the next section for cleaning carpeted surfaces.

6. Use sticky tape to pick up small residual CFL pieces or powder from soft furnishings and then add that to the bag.

7. The plastic bag should be reasonably sturdy and needs to be sealed, but it does not need to be air tight. The sealed plastic bag should be double-bagged to minimise cuts from broken glass. [3]

If you’re a U.S. citizen, you can always order a Philips Spill-kit for ‘only’ $100.00… 😉

“Offers Customers the tools to handle the clean up of broken mercury containing lamps. The materials may be placed in a sealed plastic bag and sent to EPSI in the standard EPSI-PAK lamp recycle box. Kit includes a pail containing training video, safety data sheets, instructions, guidelines for clean-up, mercury chemical information, gloves, scraper, brush, pan, dust mask, safety goggles, sponge pads, plastic sealable bags and large plastic bags.”

Update: Unfortunately, the Maine DEP found when testing that plastic bags are not enough to contain the mercury, not even air tight plastic containers. See my newer post Mercury Problem Worse Than Suspected.

CFL mercury may also constitute a health hazard if thrown away with household garbage or in glass recycling containers:

“‘The problem with the bulbs is that they’ll break before they get to the landfill. They’ll break in containers, or they’ll break in a dumpster or they’ll break in the trucks. Workers may be exposed to very high levels of mercury when that happens,’ says John Skinner, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, the trade group for the people who handle trash and recycling. Skinner says when bulbs break near homes, they can contaminate the soil.” [5]

Mercury & coal

The European Commission, however, continues to defend the CFL despite its mercury content, using one of the oldest CFL lobby arguments in the book:

“Indeed the decrease of mercury emissions resulting from energy savings (electricity generation in power plants has its own mercury emissions) outweighs the need for mercury in the lamps.”

That the anti-lightbulb campaign in early 1990s came up with the idea to blame powerplant emissions on the lightbulb in order to get around the uncomfortable fact that FL and CFL contain mercury, is not as surprising as the fact that so many keep regurgitating this argument without ever stopping to consider the blatant flaws in it!

One eloquent exception is Dr Peter Thornes:

“This is based on North American studies, crucially making various assumptions:

“1. That most power is derived from coal. It is about 1/3 in the UK, for example, 1/5 in Ireland, and of course substantially less (and decreasing) in many countries. As an example, the US Government EPA 2002 5-year comparison diagram, variations of which are often used by ban proponents, assumes all power comes from coal, concluding that in such situations CFLs are better.”

“2. That emissions remains at the fixed levels. Power station mercury release has for a long time been treatable by using wet scrubbers (chemical, not human, I hasten to add), in combination with recently cheaper and more effective injection and photochemical techniques.”

“If and where power station mercury release is a problem, ecological warriors might want to do something about it, rather than just use it as an excuse to ban light bulbs. In a nutshell:

“1. What comes out of ever decreasing coal power stations chimneys can be dealt with: we know where the problem sources are and we can treat them with ever increasing efficiency at lower costs.

“2. Compare that with scattered broken lights on all the dump sites, we do not know where the broken lights are, and we can’t do anything about them.” [6]

Danish LCA study:

Update 13 Sept (copied from the LCA page): For those who still believe that incandescent bulbs “cause more mercury emissions via coal plants”, please understand that it really is nothing but a cheap PR trick which seems to originate from the pro-CFL/anti-lightbulb lobby organisation IAEEL 1993, and based alternately on:

I. U.S. conditions in which, at that time, 59% of electricity production came from coal. June 2008 it was 48,5% and decreasing. [7]

II. A Danish ‘study’ (= calculation excercise) from 1991 [8], based on an electricity production from coal assumed at 95% (as was the case in Denmark at that time – the highest in Europe!) [9]. According to EuroStat, the EU share of coal used in electricity production was 39% in 1991 and has since decreased to 29% in 2006 (though varying widely between countries, many use no coal at all). [12]

Mercury in China and India

Also note that there are both automated and non-automated factories in China. In the small, non-automated factories, workers distribute the mercury and phosphors into each CFL by hand! Besides the risk of easily exceeding the specified limits, mercury vapourises at room temperature [13] and Chinese factories are not exactly known for issuing protective gear to factory workers. How ‘green’ is it to poison Chinese labourers and create more toxic waste?

Edit: A May 2009 Times Online article, ‘Green’ lightbulbs poison workers, confirms this information:

“In southern China, compact fluorescent lightbulbs destined for western consumers are being made in factories that range from high-tech multinational operations to sweat-shops, with widely varying standards of health and safety.” [14]

As I pointed out above, hand-dripping risks more mercury being injected into each CFL than the specified limit. VITO, the consultant firm hired by the European Commission to do the preparatory study before the ban, found this procedure to be the likely explanation for the widely varying mercury content in sampled CFLs:

“VITO performed a control on the mercury content of a limited sample CFLi’s, currently available on the market. The control was made by atomic fluorescence spectrometry, conform CMA 2/I/B.3.” (Sampe 1: 1.8mg; sample 2: 1.1mg; sample 3: 6.4mg; sample 4: 3.5mg, sample 5: 0.28mg.) “It must be stated that sample #3 significantly exceeded the maximum allowed mercury content. This is probably caused by the cheap but inaccurate method of mercury filling (drip filling) that seems to be very common in most small far eastern production plants.” [15]

I also warned that this manual dripping will poison workers, as mercury vapourises at room temperature (+20 degrees Celsius). Now this is exactly what has happened!

“Large numbers of Chinese workers have been poisoned by mercury, which forms part of the compact fluorescent lightbulbs.” [14]

Also, mercury mines in China are being reopened to meet the increased Western demand for CFLs!

“A surge in foreign demand, set off by a European Union directive making these bulbs compulsory within three years, has also led to the reopening of mercury mines that have ruined the environment.” [14]

As the article is no longer available on the original site, here is a copy of the full text:

“Green” lightbulbs poison workers

By Michael Sheridan, Foshan | timesonline.co.uk, May 2009

Hundreds of factory staff are being made ill by mercury used in bulbs destined for the West.

When British consumers are compelled to buy energy-efficient lightbulbs from 2012, they will save up to 5m tons of carbon dioxide a year from being pumped into the atmosphere. In China, however, a heavy environmental price is being paid for the production of “green” lightbulbs in cost-cutting factories.

Large numbers of Chinese workers have been poisoned by mercury, which forms part of the compact fluorescent lightbulbs. A surge in foreign demand, set off by a European Union directive making these bulbs compulsory within three years, has also led to the reopening of mercury mines that have ruined the environment.

Doctors, regulators, lawyers and courts in China – which supplies two thirds of the compact fluorescent bulbs sold in Britain – are increasingly alert to the potential impacts on public health of an industry that promotes itself as a friend of the earth but depends on highly toxic mercury.

Making the bulbs requires workers to handle mercury in either solid or liquid form because a small amount of the metal is put into each bulb to start the chemical reaction that creates light.

Mercury is recognised as a health hazard by authorities worldwide because its accumulation in the body can damage the nervous system, lungs and kidneys, posing a particular threat to babies in the womb and young children.

The risks are illustrated by guidance from the British government, which says that if a compact fluorescent lightbulb is broken in the home, the room should be cleared for 15 minutes because of the danger of inhaling mercury vapour.

Documents issued by the Chinese health ministry, instructions to doctors and occu-pational health propaganda all describe mercury poisoning in lighting factories as a growing public health concern.

“Pregnant women and mothers who are breastfeeding must not be allowed to work in a unit where mercury is present,” states one official rulebook.

In southern China, compact fluorescent lightbulbs destined for western consumers are being made in factories that range from high-tech multina-tional operations to sweat-shops, with widely varying standards of health and safety.

Tests on hundreds of employees have found dangerously high levels of mercury in their bodies and many have required hospital treatment, according to interviews with workers, doctors and local health officials in the cities of Foshan and Guangzhou.

Dozens of workers who were interviewed on condition of anonymity described living with the fear of mercury poisoning. They gave detailed accounts of medical tests that found numerous workers had dangerous levels of the toxin in their urine.

“In tests, the mercury content in my blood and urine exceeded the standard but I was not sent to hospital because the managers said I was strong and the mercury would be decontaminated by my immune system,” said one young female employee, who provided her identity card.

“Two of my friends were sent to hospital for one month,” she added, giving their names also.

“If they asked me to work inside the mercury workshop I wouldn’t do it, no matter how much they paid,” said another young male worker.

Doctors at two regional health centres said they had received patients in the past from the Foshan factory of Osram, a big manufacturer serving the British market.

However, the company said in a statement that the latest tests on its staff had found nobody with elevated mercury levels. It added that local authorities had provided documents in 2007 and 2008 to certify the factory met the required environmental standards.

Osram said it used the latest technology employing solid mercury to maintain high standards of industrial hygiene equivalent to those in Germany. Labour lawyers said Osram, as a responsible multi-national company, was probably the best employer in a hazardous sector and conditions at Chinese-owned factories were often far worse.

A survey of published specialist literature and reports by state media shows hundreds of workers at Chinese-owned factories have been poisoned by mercury over the past decade.

In one case, Foshan city officials intervened to order medical tests on workers at the Nanhai Feiyang lighting factory after receiving a petition alleging dangerous conditions, according to a report in the Nanfang Daily newspaper. The tests found 68 out of 72 workers were so badly poisoned they required hospitalisation.

A specialist medical journal, published by the health ministry, describes another compact fluorescent lightbulb factory in Jinzhou, in central China, where 121 out of 123 employees had excessive mercury levels. One man’s level was 150 times the accepted standard.

The same journal identified a compact fluorescent lightbulb factory in Anyang, eastern China, where 35% of workers suffered mercury poisoning, and industrial discharge containing the toxin went straight into the water supply.

It also reported a survey of 18 lightbulb factories near Shanghai, which found that exposure levels to mercury were higher for workers making the new compact fluorescent lightbulbs than for other lights containing the metal.

In China, people have been aware of the element’s toxic properties for more than 2,000 years because legend has it that the first emperor, Qin, died in 210BC after eating a pill of mercury and jade he thought would grant him eternal life.

However, the scale of the public health problems in recent times caused by mercury mining and by the metal’s role in industrial pollution is beginning to emerge only with the growth of a civil society in China and the appearance of lawyers prepared to take on powerful local governments and companies.

A court in Beijing has just broken new ground in industrial injuries law by agreeing to hear a case unrelated to lightbulbs but filed by a plaintiff who is seeking £375,000 in compensation for acute mercury poisoning that he claims destroyed his digestive system.

The potential for litigation may be greatest in the ruined mountain landscape of Guizhou province in the southwest, where mercury has been mined for centuries. The land is scarred and many of the people have left.

Until recently, the conditions were medieval. Miners hewed chunks of rock veined with cinnabar, the main commercial source of mercury. They inhaled toxic dust and vapours as the material seethed in primitive cauldrons to extract the mercury. Nobody wore a mask or protective clothing.

“Our forefathers had been mining for mercury since the Ming Dynasty [1368-1644] and in olden days there was no pollution from such small mines,” said a 72-year-old farmer, named Shen.

“But in modern times thousands of miners came to our land, dug it out and poured chemicals to wash away the waste. Our water buffaloes grew stunted from drinking the water and our crops turned grey. Our people fell sick and didn’t live long. Anybody who could do has left.”

The government shut all the big mercury mining operations in the region in recent years in response to a fall in global mercury prices and concern over dead rivers, poisoned fields and ailing inhabitants.

But The Sunday Times found that in this remote corner of a poverty-stricken province, the European demand for mercury had brought the miners back.

A Chinese entrepreneur, Zhao Yingquan, has paid £1.5m for the rights to an old state-run mine. The Luo Xi mining company used thousands of prisoners to carve out its first shaft and tunnels in the 1950s.

“We’re in the last stages of preparing the mine to start operations again in the second half of this year,” said a manager at the site, named Su.

At Tongren, a town where mercury was processed for sale, an old worker spoke of the days when locals slaved day and night to extract the precious trickles of silvery metal.

“I worked for 40 years in a mine and now my body is full of sickness and my lungs are finished,” he said.

Additional reporting: Sara Hashash

And India’s lighting industry, for example, already uses 56 tons of mercury per year. If forced to increase the use of FL/CFL from current 10% to 100%, that will be 560 tons! [16]

This is truly alarming, considering the fact that one teaspoon of mercury is enough to poison a medium-sized lake!

Once you’ve opened Pandora’s box and let the mercury out, there is no way of putting it back in again; it will just keep circulating and climb its way up the food chain. Thus, focus should be on the direct sources of mercury: fluorescent light and fossil fuels.

Stop mercury emissions it at the source before its too late! 

Ban CFLs

In my opinion, only FL tubes, CFLs and HID lights used professionally should be exempt from the EU mercury ban, as most factories, offices and shops already have well established routines for recycling tubes and lamps correctly and especially linear fluorescent tubes tend to be returned as they don’t fit in standard trash cans.

To put such a burden on private individuals, especially in developing countries who usually already have enough to worry about without needing the extra hassle of safely deposing burned-out bulbs, can certainly not be called a wise and responsible decision.


1. Nyhetskanalen: “Expert varnar för lågenergilampor”
2. U.S. NPA: Mercury – Spills, Disposal and Site Cleanup
3. U.K Health Protection Agency: Fact sheet on mercury and CFLs
4. Swedish Chemical Inspection Agency: Kvicksilver i lågenergilampor och lysrör
5. “CFL Bulbs Have One Hitch: Toxic Mercury”
6. New Electric Politics – Environment
7. Mercury: A Broader Perspective, IAEEL Newsletter 3/93
8. Life Cycle Analysis of Integral Compact Fluorescent Lamps, 1991
(now removed, local copy: IAEEL – Danish Life Cycle Analysis)
9. EIA: Electric Power Monthly, September 2009
10. More on mercury, IAEEL Newsletter 1/94
11. Lot 19: Domestic Lighting Part 1, Chapter 4
12. Eurostat: Panorama of Energy 2007
13. Mercury Waste Solutions
14. Times online: “‘Green’ lightbulbs poison workers”
15. Lot 19: Domestic Lighting Part 1, Chapter 4
16. “Think before you make the switch to CFL!”

CFL Analysis – Recycling

Due to the high risk of adding to mercury pollution if thrown away with housholed garbage and ending up in landfills, everyone naturally agrees that CFLs should be safely recycled.

However, the EU Commissions own consultants found that:

“Recycling rate of mercury containing lamps for commercial and domestic sectors (including linear fluorescent and HID lamps which make up the vast majority in commercial sector):

* Bulgaria 2008: 0% despite recycling legislation
* Denmark 2007: total >50%, domestic low (source: http://www.lwf.nu/)
* France 2007: total 36%, domestic ? (source: Recylum.com)
* Germany 2006: total 36%, commercial 90%, domestic 10% incl all lamps (source: LightCycle)
* Poland 2007: total 10% (“lighting equipment”, not just lamps), domestic ?
* Sweden 2007: total 75%, commercial 90%, domestic 60% (source: STEM)

“The general impression from contact with manufacturers and EU-27 country representatives is that the recycling system for collection of mercury from lamps is in most countries not implemented properly, especially for the residential sector. A large part of the consumers don’t even know that a CFLi contains mercury and that they should give back the disposed CFLi for recycling.[1] [emphasis added]

* Baltic States, Belgium, Chech Republic, Hungary, Portugal, Romania have initiated recycling programmes but statistics were not yet available. A recycling fee is often included in the purchase price. [1]

* According to European Lamp Companies Federation, only Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Norway and Switserland currently “have the infrastructure to recycle at least 50% of their mercury containing lamps”, with Austria and Belgium starting schemes. [2]

* In Sweden September 2009 , 20% of CFLs do not get recycled, according to a rough – and probably optimistic – estimate by lighting industry representative Magnus Franzell, despite being one of the leading countries in recycling awareness and routines.

“‘The problem is that every CFL contains up to 5 milligrams of mercury, one of the most dangerous envionmental toxins. And now CFL sales are increasing drastically. We estimate that it will double or triple within a few years now that the incandescent bulb is banned’, says Magnus Frantzell. “This would mean that about 10 to 15 million CFLs per year will be sold. If recycling remains on the same level as totay, this means that up to 10-15 kilograms will not be recycled.'” [3]

* In Denmark, January 2009, nearly 50% of CFLs still did not get recycled and two thirds of end users did not know you need to recycle CFLs! Therefore many throw them away with household garbage or in the recycling containers for glass! [4]

* In the U.S., recycling is not going well either. [5]

* In December 2008, the EU Commision expressed the following concerns:

“EU legislation to restrict the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment and to promote the collection and recycling of such equipment has been in force since August 2004. More than four years later only about a third of electrical and electronic waste is reported to be treated in line with these laws and the other two thirds is going to landfilland potentially to sub-standard treatment sites in or outside the European Union. Apart from losing out on valuable secondary raw materials, this is especially worrisome since inadequately treated products pose major environmental and health risks. The illegal trade to non-EU countries also continues to be widespread. Moreover many electrical and electronic products not complying with the substance restrictions have been found in the EU.” [emphasis added] [6]

The EU WEEE directive regarding Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment mandates retailers to take back old electrical equipment when a new similar item is bought. This is of course excellent, providing one really wants to buy a new similar product. You can’t take back your old stereo and buy a coffee maker instead, or a CFL and buy a halogen or LED lamp. But it’s of course better than nothing and some larger chains like IKEA have volunteered to take back CFLs without strings attached.

Deposit-refund scheme would probably be an even more effective way of raising recycling rates. [7] This needs to be done now! Nothing stops individual countries from implementing such schemes. In Sweden some politicians have already suggested it. [8]

Safe disposal

And even if more users can be persuaded to leave burned-out CFLs for recycling and everything possible is done to facilitate this, CFLs have to be handled with utmost care so they don’t break. You can’t just chuck them into a container like you can with glass, paper, plastic and metals. So, I decided to make some random calls to see how CFLs are handled at various stages of the recycling cycle. (I’ll be updating this list as I make more calls, so check it again if you want to know.)

* IKEA is one of the companies that accept burned-out CFLs from customers without strings attached. I asked if this is done by collecting them safely in small boxes or if people just throw them in a recycling container where they can break. They said the latter may occur at some places. I informed them that mercury vapourises at +20C and can be inhaled by staff and customers alike. This information was new to them! Alarmed, they promised to look into this immediately and change recycling routines a s a p. In Sweden.

* IKEA Denmark seems to be well aware of the mercury risk and claim to recycle theirs carefully in small boxes where bulbs don’t break.

* IKEA U.K. couldn’t say how recycling was done but promised to forward the information about the necessity of not breaking them to other stores.

* A Home Depot store in Seattle, U.S.A, seemed at least to know about the risk of mercury vaporising at room temperature and assured me returned CFLs were being handled properly, but couldn’t say exactly how.

* A randomly picked U.S. Wal-Mart store had no clue what I was talking about and referred to the fluffy sustainability page on their website.

* Ragn-Sells, one of the major recycling facilities in Sweden they said they handle CFLs with care so they don’t break before getting recycled. That’s reassuring, at least. Well, unless accidents happen in the recycling process…

“Sweden Recycling in Hovmantorp have had problems with one of their machines that recycles lamps with mercury. Employees have inhaled mercury and must until further notice use protective masks. Two empolyees at Sweden Recycling have shown elevated levels of mercury in urine- and blood samples.” [9]

1. Domestic Lighting, Part 1, Chapter 3
2. European Lamp Companies Federation
3. Miljoner lampor med kvicksilver försvinner
4. Hver anden sparepære går op i røg
6. Light-bulb ban craze exceeds disposal plans
6. Environment: Commission proposes revised laws on recycling and use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment
7. New Electric Politics: Environment
8. Moderat föreslår pant på lågenergilampor
9. Sweden Recycling åtgärdar kvicksilverläcka