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Issue 6
, 2007
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Think before you make the switch to CFL!

Parvinder Singh
Source: Toxics Link, Date: , 2007

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 (CFL).

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.CFL

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.

No system 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 citizens.

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 basis.

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 long-lasting.

LED: Non-mercury alternative

LEDA 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 are:

  • 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 initial cost.

  • 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 removed.