Hidden risks of low-energy bulbs

Energy-saving lights have been promoted as efficient alternatives to traditional incandescent ones. But, writes Yuan Duanduan, they come with a dark side: small quantities of mercury pollution.

Energy-saving bulbs are seen as a more efficient alternative to their traditional incandescent cousins. In 2009, 120 million of them were sold, bringing the overall total in recent years to 200 million. But Yu Hao, professor of physics at Tsinghua University, is concerned about the pollution risks hidden within this strategy.

An expert on lighting, Yu participated in the development of China’s first high-pressure xenon (HID) bulb. He explains that an ordinary energy-saving bulb contains five milligrammes of mercury – just enough to cover the tip of a ball-point pen, but capable of polluting 1,800 tonnes of groundwater. Mercury evaporates at room temperature, and a broken energy-saving bulb can immediately send mercury levels in the surrounding air soaring to over 100 times safety limits. Excessive levels of mercury in the human body can damage the central nervous system, and a single inhaled dose of 2.5 grammes can be fatal.

Yu calculates that in 2006 incorrect disposal of mercury-containing bulbs released 70 to 80 tonnes of the element into the environment.

China lacks a system to handle these products. A revised list of hazardous waste types released in 2008 listed domestic fluorescent lights – including energy-saving bulbs – as not requiring handling as hazardous waste. Hundreds of millions of energy-saving bulbs will be disposed of as domestic waste, then, and become a hidden environmental killer.

Last year Yu wrote to the State Council, arguing that the strategy to popularise energy-saving bulbs was not truly green if it adds to mercury pollution. In the reply he received a fortnight later, his concern was acknowledged. On June 5, 2009, the Ministry of Environmental Protection invited experts to a meeting on the matter, but nothing was decided. Yu says that “some of the experts didn’t seem concerned about mercury pollution”.

China still has no policy or measures to deal with this issue. Chen Yansheng, head of the China Lighting Association, noted that China is considering formulating standards for the recycling and disposal of gas-discharge bulbs, but there is no hint of when that might happen.

Yu investigated the market and found that little or no mention is made of mercury pollution. Even in government documents about the popularisation of the bulbs, there is no warning of the dangers. “A lot of people don’t even know that energy-saving bulbs contain mercury,” he said.

But it is no secret to the lighting industry. Zhejiang Yankon is the world’s largest manufacturer of energy-saving bulbs. A company official identified only as Mr Chen said that even a large company like his cannot make these bulbs without mercury. All they can do is reduce the amount of mercury in the bulb and use solid rather than liquid mercury in order to reduce pollution from the manufacturing process.

“There hasn’t been any state evaluation of pollution from fluorescent lighting,” says Liu Shu, an engineer from the Beijing Lighting Research Institute’s (BLRI) chemical laboratory. “The environmental authorities are more concerned with food and domestic appliances, and there’s not much attention paid to lighting.”

So the green-lighting project has gone ahead full speed, as a key part of China’s Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Five-Year Plans. Purchases of energy-saving bulbs have been encouraged with generous subsidies, leading to a buoyant manufacturing sector. China has 2,000 registered energy-saving bulb manufacturing firms, producing 2.4 billion bulbs annually – 85% of global output.

According to Yu, China started promoting environmentally friendly lighting in 1996, and energy-saving bulbs have always been the focus of this push. Most of the experts who promoted the project back then were physicists, without much understanding of photoelectric engineering – so the risks of mercury pollution were not considered.

Philips has often won tenders to popularise energy-saving bulbs in China. Hu Zhenghong, a public relations official at Philips China’s lighting department, says “there are limits to the technology”, adding: “At the time, China weighed up the pros and cons of promoting energy-saving bulbs, and this is the best solution overall for saving electricity, reducing emissions and the advocating of power saving in society as a whole.”

Feng Xinbin, a Chinese Academy of Sciences researcher, studies mercury in the environment. He says that power-saving bulbs will result in much lower release of mercury overall within China’s coal-burning power industry. “Each power plant releases one hundred tonnes of mercury every year.” [Use of power-saving bulbs, the thinking goes, will mean a reduction in the use of electricity, which comes mainly from coal-fired plants.]

But Feng stresses that despite the small quantities of mercury in each bulb, the issue of disposal still needs to be solved because mercury is a global pollutant; it spreads through the atmosphere and is highly mobile. After precipitating out of the atmosphere, it accumulates as methylmercury in fish and can easily end up in the human body via the food chain.

This year Lin Xuyi, a People’s Representative from Zhuhai, submitted a proposal to the National People’s Congress calling for the establishment of recycling mechanisms for energy-saving bulbs. Although the proposal had earlier been presented to the relevant authorities, nothing came of it.

Only three of China’s energy-saving bulb manufacturers have recycling equipment, and they have installed this of their own accord. “Usually firms just send them to landfill,” according to Zhejiang Yankon’s Chen. “It’s costly to dispose of them, there aren’t any subsidies and there’s little value in recycling.” Chen says that it costs RMB 10 million [nearly US$1.5 million] to build a recycling line, and a large company will need two or three.

While putting together his proposal, Lin spoke to many manufacturers and industry associations. Most companies indicated that they could dispose of old bulbs if there was a subsidy for it. But he stresses that “the government must set standards, so that — like with wastewater and gas — the firms don’t dare not handle it”.

An employee of one waste processor in Guangzhou said that they can deal with energy-saving bulbs, but “there’s no way to handle the mercury at the moment; all we can do is store it, and as the quantities increase we don’t know what will happen”.

Semi-conductor lights such as LEDs – light-emitting diodes — are seen as a solution to the problem. They contain no mercury, use 80% less electricity and have a lifespan of eight to 10 years.

But Chen Yansheng believes that LED technology is not yet mature in China, and costs are high – so LED lights cannot be popularised in the near term. Lin Fan, sales manager with Anhui Keleisi Lighting (Anhui Crystal-Opto Electronics Enterprise Limited), explains that due to technological limitations the diodes have to be imported from Taiwan and the majority of products are then assembled in Shenzhen.

Ge Aiming, professor of illumination engineering and lighting at Fudan University, says that in May the ministry of science and technology published the first national standard for semiconductor lighting, with a series of local standards likely to follow. He is optimistic. “Overseas success with environmentally friendly lighting is due to tough rules and standards from government right at the start,” Ge says.

Yuan Duanduan is a reporter trainee for Southern Weekend.

This article is adapted by
chinadialogue from an article in Southern Weekend, April 14, 2010.

While China’s green-lighting strategy advances, the country still has no policy or measures to address the disposal of mercury-containing bulbs. Should Chinese leaders and light-bulb manufacturers be confronting the issue more firmly and more urgently? What would you like to see them do? Should subsidies be introduced to encourage greater recycling? Are LEDs an answer? Let us know on the forum what you think.

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