Mercury takes the shine off CFLs

Lower watt lamps use more mercury for extra glow, says study

By Moyna
Published: Saturday 01 October 2011

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are known for saving power. What is less  known is that they have high mercury content, which damages the environment and human health. According to non-profit Toxics Link, 22 sample bulbs taken from the four leading manufacturing brands of CFLs in India showed mercury presence up to 21.2 milligram per unit on an average. A 2008 CPCB survey says the average mercury used in CFLs is much lesser at 7.5 mg.

Highs and lows
  • Toxics Link Study samples show that maximum mercury content in a bulb may be as high as 62.56 mg; the minimum was found to be 2.27 mg
  • In the US, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) have voluntarily capped the mercury content to 4mg/CFL unit of up to 25 watts and 5 mg for units above 25 watts
  • In Europe the Restriction of Hazardous substances (ROHS) law mandates mercury capping at 5mg/CFL
While releasing the study titled 'Toxics in that Glow' on September 29, Toxics Link director Ravi Agarwal said the Indian CFL Industry is exploiting the new market opened by the climate change crisis, and is creating a toxic crisis simultaneously. “Instead of following the best practices in the world, the industry is putting the Indian consumer at a high risk by using high level of mercury,” he added.

As per a document published by US-based environmental research organisation Worldwatch Institute, if incandescent lights were to be replaced with CFLs globally, energy demand in the lighting sector would reduce 40 percent.  At present, the CFL market (market share in lighting?YES) ranges from 14 to 30 per cent in different countries; in India, it is about 20 per cent.

Unregulated market

Emphasising the lack of infrastructure, monitoring and regulation for the use and disposal of CFLs, Agarwal expressed disappointment that the lighting industry was not included in the Electronic-Waste Bill drafted recently. He added that the risk is not restricted to accidents as “there are no mechanisms or systems in place to check the proper disposal of CFLs”. Agarwal claims that globally 60 tonnes of mercury leaches into the environment every year. The contribution of the Indian market is  approximately 8.5 tonnes. “Once it enters the food cycle, the scale and scope of this damage is undetectable,” he says.

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The Toxics Link study indicates that lower watt lamps use higher levels of mercury. Deputy Director Satish Sinha said this is a result of attempting to capture the market as higher mercury will  increases lumen (light) output. Fifty percent of the samples analysed were found to have high mercury content ranging between 12.24 mg and 39.64 mg across different wattages. Unbranded CFLs which are greater in number were not studied; therefore, the scope of the mercury usage and leaching from them remains to be estimated. 

Study cannot be taken at face value: industry

While agreeing with the need to put a cap on the maximum amount of mercury to be used in CFLs, S Venkatramani of Indian Society of Lighting Engineers says that the figures offered in this study are not completely reliable. Citing an Industry survey carried out in 2010, he explains that different manufacturers got different levels of mercury content from the same sample when testing in different labs. “In the absence of standardised methodology to measure and poor technology the results of this study cannot be taken on face value,” said Venkatramani.

India's CFL production potential
  400-500 million pieces per annum: Indian market's potential to manufacture
20 million: number of CFL bulbs manufactured in 2003
200 million: number of CFL bulbs manufactured in 2008
8.5 tonnes: Amount of mercury leaching into environment from CFL bulbs in India
He adds that the Industry is already in talks with the government and NGOs to draw up a reasonable maximum cap on the mercury quantity in CFLS. “I believe that the mercury content is a matter of concern, but it is already being addressed institutionally.” Denying any reluctance on the part of the Industry to reduce the amount of mercury, he adds that along with standardisation of use of mercury, the government also needs to standardise the method to measure mercury.   

International standards regarding the use and disposal of mercury exist and many western countries have put a cap on the amount of mercury to be used. But in India there is a complete absence of regulations for CFLs. “There are some laws governing the disposal of CFLs says Sinha adding, “There is no mechanism to check or implement the same. That is the reason we are demanding that there be a standard with a cap on the maximum amount of mercury to be used, brands follow consistent practices and end-of-life management should be  a joint responsibility of the manufacturers, regulatory agencies and the executive bodies.”

Study samples show that maximum mercury content was found to be 62.56 mg and minimum was found to be 2.27 mg. In the US, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), in 2007, voluntarily capped the mercury content which was further lowered in 2010. Currently it is 4mg/ unit for up to 25 watts and 5 mg for units above 25 watts. In Europe, the Restriction of Hazardous substances (ROHS) law mandates mercury capping at 5mg/CFL.

He further states that many companies seem to have separate standards for the mercury content in the international market and those practised in India. “We do not want to name companies sampled as we believe that the larger concern is regarding the excess mercury in CFL rather than the malpractices of one company versus the other,” says Agarwal. The study shows  the same company manufacturing CFL in Europe may have a mercury content of approximately 3 mg while in India it goes up to 21 mg.

“We are not demanding a complete revamp of the technology or revising the whole process. The samples show that it is possible to drastically reduce the mercury content in CFLS,” adds Aggarwal.  

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