Most Indian middle-class families have switched to CFL bulbs due to the claims made that they are energy saving and have the potential of reducing approximately 40% energy demands globally. However, their energy saving character has diluted an equally important issue – the issue of mercury, an integral element of all CFLs and its end of life management needs to be addressed urgently.
A study by Toxics Link titled “Toxics In That Glow: Mercury in Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) in India” reveals the potential threat associated with these bulbs. The study, which analyzed twenty-two samples of CFLs of well-known brands sold in India for their mercury content, exposes a disturbing trend in mercury dosing practice by the manufacturers. The average mercury content per unit CFL has been found to be 21.21mg, much higher than the internationally known standards – ranging four to six times the CFL sold in many developed countries. Fifty percent of the samples analyzed were found to contain high average mercury content ranging between 12.24mg and 39.64mg across different wattages. The average mercury content in 5, 8, 11, 15 and 20 watts (across studied brands) samples are 22.2mg, 7.8mg (the least), 31.5mg 18.8mg and 17.7mg respectively.
In some cases the mercury content per watt has been found to be as high as 4.39mg. In most brands the mercury content was high in lower watt lamps, possibly to capture greater market share as mercury increases the lumen (light) output. It is also worrying to note that most multinational brands, having operations across the globe follow different regulatory norms in different countries including India, rather a dubious stand.
Mercury is a neurotoxin and highly toxic heavy metal known to impact vital organs such as lever and cause developmental and neurological problems; particularly dangerous to pregnant women and children. Some of their compounds are capable of crossing the placental barrier causing irreparable damage to the unborn / newborn babies.
Higher level of mercury dosing in CFLs enhances the chances of mercury contamination and toxicity. Used and discarded CFL(s) are usually dumped with general waste, thinning out mercury in the environment. Currently, with India having no management system or infrastructure in place to manage the used-up and/ or discarded CFLs, there is a high chance of mercury running into the waste stream and the food chain through these energy saving lamps, the study says. The report argues that this exposure pathway would greatly impact the health of waste workers and local inhabitant and equally affect the environment and wildlife.
Ravi Agarwal, Director of Toxics Link said, “The Indian CFL industry is exploiting the new market opened up by the climate change crisis; however they are creating a toxic crisis alongside. Instead of following the best practices in the world, they are putting the Indian consumer at risk through high level of mercury, even while the Government procrastinates on mandating a CFL collection and recycling system. Business interests are bypassing serious health concerns.”
Health and environmental concerns have prompted the governments across the globe to take measures in order to contain mercury dosing. In the US, lighting manufacturer members of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) have voluntarily capped the amount of mercury used in CFLs in 2007 and lowered the cap again in 2010. Currently the U.S cap is 4mg/ CFL for units up to 25 watts and 5mg/CFL for units over 25 watts. In EU, the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (ROHS) law mandates the cap to 5mg/CFL.
India presents a bleak scenario in the entire life cycle starting from mercury dosing to end of life management of mercury and CFLs. What adds to the grim reality is the fact that despite the potential dangers and serious health afflictions, the country lacks any regulatory framework to standardize and limit mercury dosing in India, which is quiet random. There is no infrastructure to deal with collection, recycling and disposal of used-up and discarded lamps.
This is despite the fact that India has a strong manufacturing base having potential to manufacture 400-500 million pieces annually. India also imports about 1/3rd CFL tubes.
The Toxics Link study recommends three-pronged action to contain the mercury menace through CFLs:
- Standard: The government must set maximum mercury limit standard in CFL owing to the various health and environmental hazards. It is technically feasible to achieve 2-3 mg/CFLs in India, have the standards set accordingly. The standard should be made mandatory with effective monitoring strategy;
- Consistent Practice: Since most multinational players in the organized sector have the means to move towards safer regimes, they should standardize their production process as followed by them in other parts of the world;
- End-of-life management: The end-of-life management must be the joint responsibility of the manufacturers, regulatory agencies and the executive bodies. Consumers, too, have a responsibility for the proper disposal of broken and used-up lamps. For recycling, the best-suited technology must be decided based on a collective dialogue among various stakeholders.