Regulations to check mercury pollution take backseat as Centre promotes fluorescent light
Sifting through Delhi’s municipal rubbish every day, Anwarul Shaikh and Rupa Begum often find broken CFL bulbs mixed in kitchen and other domestic waste. The compact fluorescent lamps have replaced incandescent bulbs in garbage mounds in the past couple of years, Rupa said, picking a few up. The glass tube and plastic end cap of a CFL fetch them up to Rs 3. Of late, Anwarul has been complaining of restricted vision. “It’s difficult to recognise distance between objects and me. I keep bumping into waste,” he said.
Mercury vapour in broken CFLs could be the reason for Anwarul’s condition, said T K Joshi, director, occupational and environmental programmes centre of Maulana Azad Medical College in Delhi. Since mercury is a neurotoxin, it can affect all organs of the body. Its major impact is on the brain, lungs and kidneys, said Joshi.
But with growing demand for energy- efficient lighting, the country’s production capacity for CFLs has gone up 25 times—from 19 million in 2002 to 500 million in 2010. Centre’s Bachat Lamp Yojana, a scheme to popularise CFLs, alone has pushed 20 million CFLs in the past three years. And all this is without any check on mercury pollution.
The CFLs sold in the country have 3- 12 mg of mercury. As per the standards proposed by the International Electrotechnical Commission it should not be more than 5 mg. Advanced technologies have even helped manufacturers in USA and Europe produce CFLs with just 1 mg of mercury. “Indian industry does not have any mandatory or voluntary standards for regulating mercury in florescent lights,” said Gopal Krishna of Toxics Watch, a non-profit in Delhi.
Centre should have promoted energy efficient LED (light emitting diode) lights that do not contain mercury, he added. Assuming that each of the 350 million CFL bulbs produced in 2009 contained 5 mg mercury, 1,750 kg mercury would have been added to the waste in 2010. “There is no recycling unit for fluorescent lamps in India,” said an official at the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). In 2008 the board framed guidelines on mercury management in the CFL sector. It said all mercury-contaminated lamps and cut glass tips “may be treated or recycled” in a recycling unit at production site or at an authorised unit.
CPCB guideline was based on a task force report commissioned by Union environment ministry in 2007. Headed by the ministry’s additional secretary A K Khwaja, it is the only committee set up so far to look into the safe use and disposal of mercury in fluorescent lamp sector. The task force had recommended the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) to draw up standards for the amount of mercury in CFLs. But BIS is yet to drft mandatory standards. “One of the hindrances is the lack of advanced testing facility in the country,” said H C Kandpal of the National Physical Laboratory.
He is part of the BIS committee working on mercury standards in CFLs. The task force had also called for a tax on CFLs to finance safe disposal of mercury. Its report mentioned industries could buy back CFLs for recycling them. The report did not go down well with the industry, which has commissioned another study.
“Both the CPCB guidelines and the task force report were sketchy and could not be used to frame laws on the complex CFL disposal issue,” said spokesperson of Electric Lamp and Components Manufacturers Association of India (ELCOMA). Industry sources suggest if buy-back is made compulsory, it will add to the cost of CFLs.
So, the industry is buying time by commissioning another study. “After the report is out, ELCOMA plans to seek public opinion and government’s response,” said an industry analyst. A draft law may be ready by the end of 2011. It would take another couple of years before the law comes into force and recycling units are established, he added. And by that time another 2,500 kg of mercury would have been released into the environment.