No one's controlling mercury

Published: Saturday 31 January 2009

No one's controlling mercury

A CFL bulb undergoes quality t Industry reluctant, regulators lax

The only hiccup in implementing a wide scale, cfl -based energy-saving programme in India is mercury, a small but essential component of the lamp. Mercury is a proven neurotoxin. Inhaling mercury vapours can severely damage the respiratory tract. Sore throat, coughing, pain or tightness in the chest, headache, muscle weakness, anorexia, gastrointestinal disturbance, fever, bronchitis and pneumonitis are symptoms of mercury toxicity.

Mercury in a cfl has no substitute but its quantity can be reduced. In developed countries, like the US and Europe, cfls with 1 mg of mercury are available. The cfls sold in India, however, have 3 mg to 13 mg mercury, according to the task force set up by the environment and forests ministry under its additional secretary A K Khwaja in August 2007.The mandate of the task force was to evolve a policy on safe use and disposal of mercury in the cfl sector, including in manufacturing. Its members included representatives of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency, Central Pollution Control Board, National Institute of Occupational Health, All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the health ministry. Representatives of light manufacturing associations were also invited for discussions. In its report, released in May 2008, the task force recommended that the Bureau of Indian Standards should draw up standards for regulating the quantity of mercury in cfls.

The best way to dose a cfl with mercury is using pellets or mercury amalgams. Mercury is mixed with other metals such as tin to form small pellets, roughly the size of the tip of a ball point pen. The other way is to use liquid mercury. "The problem with liquid is that it is very hard to keep track of the amount of mercury going in," said Sunil Sikka, the president of Havells, a company that claims it restricts the use of mercury to 4 mg in its cfls. "With pellets, one can easily maintain a standard on the amount of mercury going in."

Under the Restriction of Hazardous Substances directive of the EU, cfls produced in or imported to its member states must not contain more than 5 mg of mercury. In the US, mercury content in a bulb is regulated under the voluntary Energystar rating programme. cfls that carry Energystar logo on their packaging do not contain more than 5 mg of mercury. Besides, the manufacturer has to specify the amount of mercury and lead on the packaging. It also has to specify that mercury and lead are toxins, and print information on local recycling and safe disposal.

Down to Earth  
Mercury pellets are a better option
In India, no mandatory or voluntary standards exist for regulating mercury in cfls. According to a member of the Bureau of Indian Standards, the issues of mercury dosing of cfl and mandatory labelling with a warning that the lamp contains mercury have not gone down well with the industry. "These issues are being discussed by the technical evaluation committee (of the bureau, on electric lamps and their auxiliaries) since November 2007, but the industry wants more time to comply," the member said.

On November 11, 2007, the committee called for carrying a warning on cfl packaging "This lamp contains mercury and it is hazardous. Proper care should be taken for its safe disposal." More than a year later the warning has not appeared on the packaging. "The word 'hazardous' in it has been replaced with 'harmful' on the insistence of elcoma," he said.

Down to Earth According to Prakash Bachani, the director of the bureau and member secretary of the committee, the technical committee has not reached a consensus on mercury standards. "The members feel that mercury should be regulated in a phased manner," he said. Bachani could not give a deadline when these regulations would be finalized.

Director general of elcoma Shyam Sujjan said the industry needed two years to bring down mercury levels in cfls. "We are not opposed to reducing mercury, but the industry needs more time to bring in efficient pill-dosing technologies," he said.

The lobby that has been asking for mercury regulations is the small-scale sector. According to Agrawal of the small-scale lamp manufacturers' association faislcoma, "cfl production in the small-scale sector has become a cottage industry, with over 50,000 assemblers across the country. The only way to regulate cheap imports is having stricter norms on mercury." Agrawal said not all small-scale sector vendors assemble cheap cfls and many of them are registered with the Bureau of Indian Standards. "I import cfl components from the Osram plant in China, so its quality is the same as that of any other branded vendor," he said. faislcoma is the only manufacturers' body that has submitted proposals to the Khwaja task force and the Bureau of Indian Standards for management of mercury in cfls.

Navneet Sharma, the deputy general manager (sales) of Surya Roshni, said almost all major brands, including his, are using mercury pellets in cfls. "We also export cfls. There is no question of double standards," Sharma added.

There is, however, still no system of collection and proper disposal of cfls. The Khwaja task force noted "As per the observations of the team which had visited some manufacturing units of cfls, the methodology and technology being adopted by them was far from satisfactory and they were required to take adequate care for mercury management." A member of the task force, who did not wish to be identified, said during their factory visits they found many manufacturers were not extending their cfl disposal facilities to the public. "There is about two per cent wastage during manufacturing. The wasted bulbs are disposed of at the factory itself. This facility can also be extended to spent bulbs returned by customers," he said. The wasted bulbs are crunched in an hour or two, so the facilities remain unused for most of the time.

An official of the Central Pollution Control Board confirmed that no cfl manufacturer has registered with it for disposal and recycling of the cfl waste. "cfls come under section 4 of the hazardous substance management rule that deals with electrical and electronic waste. Under it disposal and recycling facilities have to register with the board, but none has done that," he said.

The Khwaja task force recommended a tax on manufacturers and importers as a cover charge for disposal unless they built a disposal or recycling unit. According to Ajay Mathur of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency, who was part of the Khwaja task force, the government will soon announce a policy on disposal and recycling of used cfls. "The government is planning to keep aside Rs 5 per cfl for its disposal. Rs 2 will be given to the person who brings a spent cfl, while Rs 3 will be spent on its recycling and disposal," he said, adding that it would also give a monetary incentive to junk-sellers to bring spent cfls to an authorized collection centre.

In the past five years India has registered a healthy growth in the sales of cfl. Government agencies, along with private power utilities, have pushed up sales by promoting it as a part of their demand side management strategy to save power. Indian cfl market is catching up with bigger countries like the US, though electrification and per capita power consumption in the country are a fraction of North American countries.

But niggling issues stop the cfl industry from achieving its potential. The price of a cfl is still many time that of an incandescent bulb it wants to replace. Schemes for distributing free cfls, like the one started by Himachal Pradesh or of selling them under cdm projects, are rare. The rural consumer as well as families below the poverty line are yet to get a proper sniff of cfl.

While it is imperative that cfls must be encouraged, it has to be done prudently. Standards must be put in place to ensure that only the minimum required amount of mercury is used in cfls. Disposal of cfls is another issue the government must address urgently.

Though India has standards on cfl quality since 2002, they have remained ineffective in regulating poor quality cfls assembled by the unorganized sector. The Bureau of Indian Standards must ensure that its regulations are followed. Quality standards and mercury regulations are the key to take the energy efficiency drive to the next level.

Inputs by Amarjyoti Borah,
Nidhi Jamwal, Deepa Kozhisseri and Aparna Pallavi

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