Tube Lights II – Mercury from Recycled Fluorescent Tubes

A Swedish study has demonstrated that more mercury is released during the recycling process than in municipal landfills. Typical mercury emission figures from recycling vary between 3-5 %. This was the reason why some companies favored landfills over fluorescent tube recycling. After all, it makes little sense to pay $ 0.4 per tube and still end up causing more mercury pollution.

Recycling fluorescent tubes is a part of the problem

Perhaps a far bigger problem with recycling is “speculative accumulation”. In New Hampshire, a startup recycling company collected 300,000 spent fluorescent tubes, stockpiling the hazardous waste in anticipation of accumulating enough fees to start recycling operations. This company later closed down without processing a single tube. When such companies fail, the original waste generators may find themselves stranded with the liability of clean up costs.

Mercury mines

Mercury is a finite natural resource. Therefore fluorescent tubes drive up efforts to explore and find more mercury ore. This character makes fluorescent tubes a non-sustainable lighting option.   In several parts of the world, mines that had been closed because they were deemed too hazardous have been reopened to fulfill the demand for mercury for the fluorescent light industry. Worldwide, indigenous communities are bearing the brunt of the global appetite for fluorescent lights.

In California, mercury mines that were closed down decades ago continue to pollute water and land - making fish unsafe for consumption and water unfit for drinking. Experts at EPA estimate that it will take hundreds of years to clean up the mess caused by mercury mines. EPA has already spent $ 40 million and two decades in trying to stem the seepage of mercury into lakes but has not attained success until date. 

No one who values human life can possibly endorse fluorescent lights.

Mercury exposure in factory workers

Most of the world’s fluorescent lights are manufactured in China and other developing countries. The working conditions are sub optimal and the handling of mercury in some of these facilities may be far from what one may call ‘safe’. A May 2009 report in Times reported that 68 out of 72 workers in a fluorescent light factory needed hospitalization to deal with acute mercury poisoning and in another facility 121 out of 123 employees had an unacceptably high level of mercury. 

Mercury release from broken fluorescent tubes

EPA and the Maine Department of Environment Protection (DEP) have assessed the risk of mercury contamination from broken fluorescent lights. The Maine DEP study gives valuable insights about the risks associated with broken fluorescent lights.

The mercury levels from broken fluorescent lights were the highest at 1 foot height. The exposure to mercury would thus be highest for pets and children. Children have higher respiration rates (greater risk of inhalation of mercury) and their developing nervous systems are more susceptible to mercury poisoning.  The Maine DEP study further recommends that homeowners should consider avoiding fluorescent tubes in rooms used by infants, small children and pregnant women.

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