Glowing inside the compact fluorescent lamp is a toxic substance, so poisonous that its direct ingestion can result in death. Mercury, the liquid silver metal that can be seen most commonly in thermometers, has made its way into at least 401 million sockets in homes across India. According to a September 2011 study by Toxics Link, an NGO that works on hazardous waste and products, the mercury content in fluorescent lamps in India varies between 2.27 mg (the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen), and 62.56 mg (about two grains of rice). Putting this in perspective with Nityanand Jayaraman’s article ‘One-gram mercury can kill a 25-acre lake’ published in Tehelka (July 31, 2010, Issue 30 Volume 7), means that an undocumented seepage of mercury from compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) could spell doom.
The estimated electricity consumption in India increased from 43,724 GWh during 1970-71 to 7,72,603 GWh during 2011-12 (Energy statistics, 2013 – report of the Central Statistics Office). And, since lighting consumes 18 per cent of the power generated, as estimated by the Electric Lamp and Component Manufacturer’s Association (ELCOMA, an association of all the electric lamp manufacturers of India established in 1970), the use of CFL is likely to bring down the energy demand in our country, as these lamps produce four times more light in one fifth of the electricity as compared to the traditional incandescent bulbs. Thus a 15 watt CFL has the light output of a 60-watt incandescent lamp (IL). Further, CFLs have a life span ranging from 6000-15000 hours, which is 8-15 times more than an IL. With the ease with which these lamps fit into sockets meant for ILs, the sale of CFLs has increased from 67 million pieces in 2005 to 401 million pieces in 2012 (ELCOMA) in India. However, as pointed out by Milind Deore, energy economist for CFL, Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE), “CFLs have captured just 28 per cent of the domestic market, while ILs still lead at 55”.
The U-shaped or spiral vacuum-sealed glass tubes of the lamps are coated with a fluorescent powder and filled with inert gas and mercury. The base, which is inserted in the socket, is made of PVC and aluminium. Indian CFLs have a very high content of mercury. As revealed by the Toxics Link study there is no definitive relationship between the mercury content and wattage, intra or inter brand. The study in fact observed that the mercury content was recorded to be decreasing with increasing wattage. On an average, there is reportedly 21.21 mg of mercury per CFL which is way above the global standard of 5 mg per lamp.
Policy interventions and regulations
CFLs are actively promoted in India. The Bachat Lamp Yojana (BLY) launched in 2008 by BEE with a view to reduce the cost of CFLs and enhance their usage, was executed from April 2010 to October 2013. Under this scheme, 29.37 million CFLs were distributed for Rs 15 each through electricity distribution companies in Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka, Kerala and Punjab. As envisaged by UNFCCC’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), this scheme would lead to a reduction by 21,297 metric tonnes of CO2 emission and enable four hundred mega watt of energy saving. The scheme was however, discontinued due to ‘an unviable functioning model’ as opined by BEE officials. For disposal, the implementers are directed to collect the fused lamps and dispose them according to the guidelines of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The guidelines, however, have not come into effect, and recycling units have not been set up. “It (disposal) is not my baby”, asserts Ajay Mathur, director general, BEE, Ministry of Power. He believes the CFLs distributed through BLY would contain 3-6 mg of mercury each—which amounts to about 1,32,151.5 grams of mercury in circulation by conservative estimates.
The CFL manufacturers need to follow standard guidelines provided by the Indian government. The ISI mark, a standard developed by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) – IS 15111, is thus compulsory. Curiously, however, it does not have any standard for determining mercury content in the lamps. As outlined by the BIS officials, the standard for CFLs was last amended in 2010 and despite the Fifth Amendment with standards for mercury content being ready, it was not included. Interestingly, one third of the members of committee that decides provisions in IS 15111 are manufacturers; while the remaining two third are consumers; technical organisations like labs; and, government departments. Possibly manufacturers have been able to lobby for an extended time-frame when it comes to fixing standards for mercury levels. R C Mathew, head of the Electro Technical Division, BIS however assured the GnY correspondent that the BIS committee responsible for CFLs, ET 23, will meet in December this year to discuss standards for mercury levels.
The GnY team, checking out a gamut of CFL packs, was left flummoxed with several revelations. First, although there were declarations about CFLs being able to save 80 per cent energy, no similar quantification was made for the lethal metal, mercury. The packs merely claim that “the lamp contains small amount of mercury” and “it can be harmful if mishandled”. Shyam Sujan, secretary general, ELCOMA, asserts that the proposal to put the exact mercury content on the pack was given to BIS, but nothing has been done till date. Also laughable is when the fine print of the packs directs the consumer to “ensure safe and proper disposal of the lamp”. Some manufacturers such as Wipro and Osram ask the customers to contact ELCOMA for methods of safe disposal. Sujan clarifies “It was just not possible to put disposal instructions on the pack because they were very long”. For these instructions one must visit their website. For a consumer who is not even aware of the danger of what he is handling, with no recycling or disposal facility in sight, it seems utopian to expect him to browse through the internet in order to search for ‘methods of CFL disposal’ at ELCOMA.
Disposing the CFL
The absence of disposal norms and recycling procedures makes CFLs an unintended hazard for the consumer as well as the environment. India as of now has no other option but to dispose it with household waste. Opposed to the Toxic Link findings Sujan claims that the mercury content in CFLs was high a few years back, about 10-15 mg, but has been reduced to 5mg and now ELCOMA is planning to reduce it to less than 3mg. He continues, to add that the national plan made by The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI) and approved by the Ministry of Commerce for door to door lamp collection was thus not being implemented. He claims that ultimately the residual mercury content will be around 1mg and it would be a futile effort as the quantum of mercury is too low. Moreover, Sujan adds that ELCOMA cannot make such a large investment on recycling plants—especially in an adverse environment where the government is unwilling to part with land for a hazardous waste recycling plant. With the Indian government parting with land for many such ‘hazardous’ activities, even nuclear facilities, it is difficult to see why CFLs should warrant such a step-motherly treatment.
Although everyone across the board seems to agree that it is best to recycle CFLs, the MoEF guidelines mandating the CPCB to implement and set up lamp recycling units (LRU) in association with the lighting Industry is still pending. “Till then”, Sujan adds, “municipal authorities should arrange to inform and train the garbage collectors about mercury safe handling, and should provide a specified safe dumping place, like a concrete well, which may be sealed once full”.
Practices beyond borders
In Europe, all CFLs are to be disposed as special waste under European Waste Catalogue code 20 01 21 – fluorescent tubes and other mercury-containing waste. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive obliges all manufacturers from electric and electronic equipment, including discharge lamps and luminaires, to take back used products so that they can be recycled and mercury taken out of circulation. In the United States of America, the Environment Protection Agency recommends that “consumers take advantage of available local options for recycling CFLs, fluorescent bulbs and other bulbs that contain mercury, and all other household hazardous wastes, rather than disposing of them in regular household trash.” A few states like California, Minnesota and Washington prohibit mercury containing lamps from landfills. The Code of Federal Regulations mandates that any broken or damaged lamp must be disposed in sealed and sound containers to prevent effect on the environment.
In India, the e-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011 notified by the MoEF mandates that the manufacturers ensure that ‘new electrical and electronic equipment does not contain mercury’. Satish Sinha, Associate Director, Toxics Link, speaking to our correspondent informed that lighting equipment was exempted as were lamps containing less than 5 mg mercury from Schedule II of the e-waste Act. Piyush Mohapatra, who is a part of the chemicals and health team of Toxics Link, brought to notice an alarming fact—for the same wattage of the same brand, the mercury content in Indian lamps is much higher than their European or American counterparts. The Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Law of the European Union mandates that the mercury content must be lower than 5 mg per CFL. This was to be reduced to 2.5 mg this year 2013. By 2010, the National Electrical Manufacturers’ Association (NEMA) in the United States of America had voluntarily capped the mercury at 4mg/CFL for bulbs of 25 watts or less, and 5 mg for bulbs of 25 watts or more.
Although J S Kamyotra, member secretary, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the key functionary to set disposal norms around the nation, met our correspondent, he offered no tangible responses. Questions about manufacturers who flouted the more-than-5 mg mercury norm and mercury-in-CFL-waste all remained just questions. We do not even know for sure whether it is the CPCB’s or the MoEF’s responsibility.
More often than not, garbage collected is sent to sanitary landfills without treatment. Rag pickers and scavengers are exposed to the mercury from damaged CFLs through contact or inhalation. It is from these landfills that mercury enters the atmosphere and the soil. During the monsoon, the mercury leaches into groundwater from where it enters streams, rivers and oceans, passing on to the food chain through fish and other aquatic organisms.
Now, with aggressive penetration of the CFL in urban and rural India, the volume of mercury in question would be nearly 1804500 gms. It is time India stopped being a market, destroying its health and environment in order to fill the coffers of multinationals. The government has been shying away from clear cut directives to the industry way back from 2007 when G’nY began to write about the problems of CFLs (May-June, 2007). Over a span of seven years, since the introduction of CFLs there has been no reduction of procurement price, no mandatory requirements to display contents on the pack, no recycling options and apart from a greater number of CFLs being sold in the nation today—no substantive changes towards securing the health of the nation are visible. Murder would get you to jail, but a murder that spans decades would not only let you go scot free, but win you accolades for the good-energy-saving-work…or so our government believes!