With signs of global warming
being witnessed across the planet, energy efficiency and carbon
emissions have emerged as the two most important areas that need to be addressed for
slowing down the environmental apocalypse in the making.
If there is one product that has come to symblolise the
ease with which an individual consumer can make a contribution in
this direction, it is the Compact Fluorescent Light
But a growing section of
experts and activists has dared to question the wisdom of a mass
shift to CFLs without taking into account its dependence on mercury
and are saying that there is more to it than a mere change of bulbs.
In the past year or so
India, particularly the metros, has seen a strong endorsement of CFLs
through a campaign, involving State and Union Governments, power
companies, NGOs and heavy weights of the lighting industry.
With such a rare convergence
of stakeholders and counting of merits of CFLs, the logic for change
seems to be well established. A growing section of middle class in
metro cities is already shifting to these lights in a big way.
So much so that the power distribution companies are gifting away CFLs to their consumers.
But there is a dark side to
this luminescent story. A side that is not being told to consumers
and worst still those pushing it are conveniently brushing it under
the carpet at the cost of grave health and environmental impacts.
Each CFL light contains a
neurotoxic substance, which is lethal even in trace amounts and can
travel across vast geographical and ecological spaces. It is
recognised today as one of the most harmful toxics in use.
A standard CFL contains
about 0.5 milligrams of mercury, which can get release due to
breakage and in the process expose people in the vicinity. Further,
in absence of a disposal and recycling system, a lot of mercury from
these lights will get released in the environment.
Health risks from mercury
Mercury has become a major concern among healthcare professionals, with hospitals and
other institutions taking great care to reduce the amount of mercury
in the workplace to minimise chances of exposure.
Exposure to mercury can lead
to a number of serious health problems, like damage to the nervous
system, kidneys, liver, and cause motor skill and memory impairment.
Pregnant women and those who
are in childbearing age are particularly at risk as mercury can cause
birth defects and health issues in young children. According one
estimate eight per cent women of childbearing age have unsafe levels
of mercury in their bloodstream.
for disposal of CFLs in India
The problem that mercury in
CFLs poses in India is very serious and yet little recognised. Not
just because of the huge size of the lighting market, but more
importantly because of almost non-existent awareness or recognition
of household hazardous waste, particularly about mercury, among
At a recent interaction with
the members of resident's welfare association of Defence Colony, an
up-market neighbourhood in Delhi, a team of activists from Toxics
Link faced a barrage of questions on what to do with fluorescent
tubes and CFLs that stop working and need replacement on a routine
Many of them expressed shock
on being told that mercury is a component of lights. The breakages
were far greater than they expected from CFLs. They also said that a
lot of substandard brands were being sold from the next-door morning
stores in the locality.
The fact that all the broken
or fused CFLs, like other household hazardous waste, joins the
general Municipal Soild Waste was verified by those present. Focused
surveys by those working in this sector has highlighted this problem
for several years now.
India's lighting industry
alone uses approximately 56 tons of mercury every year and with a
total switch to CFL and fluorescent tubes, from the current 10
per cent, would translate into a jump of 560 tons annually.
An argument being pitched by
those asking for a total switch to CFLs is that the use of energy
efficient lights would reduce mercury emission caused by coal- based
power generation, most of global power generation is still coal-based
and India draws as much as 70 per cent of its power this way.
But the anti-mercury camp is
saying that the alternative should not lead to yet another
environmental threat and exposure at the household level. There are
existing alternatives, with potential of catering to mass demands,
that are not only more efficient than CFL, but also safer and
LED: Non-mercury alternative
A very promising non-mercury
energy efficient lighting option that is being looked at in Europe is
of light-emitting diodes (LEDs). These are tiny devices made of
semiconductors such as as silicon that have varying
abilities to conduct electricity.
In terms of energy
efficiency and longevity, a six watt LED bulb produces more light and
can last up to 50,000 more hours than an average CFL bulb.
Some advantages of using LED
LEDs produce more light
per watt than incandescent bulbs: this is useful in a battery
powered or energy-saving devices.
LEDs can emit light of
an intended color without the use of color filters that traditional
lighting methods require. This is more efficient and can lower
The solid package of an
LED can be designed to focus its light, Incandescent and fluorescent
sources often require an external reflector to collect light and
direct it in a usable manner.
When used in
applications where dimming is required, LEDs do not change their
color tint as the current passing through them is lowered, unlike
incandescent lamps, which turn yellow.
LEDs are ideal for use
in applications that are subject on-off cycling, unlike fluorescent
lamps that burn out more quickly when cycled frequently.
LEDs have an extremely
long life span. One manufacturer has calculated the Estimated Time
to Failure for LEDs to be between 100,000 and 1,000,000 hours.
Fluorescent tubes are typically rated about 10,000 hours, and
incandescent light bulbs at 1,000-2000 hours.
If a CFL breaks
in your home, be sure to disperse the harmful vapors by opening a
window prior to cleaning up the pieces. Sweep up the fragments,
taking care not to touch them with your hands and place the pieces in
a sealed plastic bag for disposal. Be sure to wipe the area where the
breakage occurred with a paper towel to make sure all fragments are