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When breathing becomes deadly

They are sold a million times over. They break down a million times over. They endanger people, animals, and the environment a million times over: compact fluor escent lamps (CFLs). In contrast to normal light bulbs, they contain highly toxic mercury. They are not suitable for use in remote regions.


CFL energy saving lamps transform circa 25 percent of the electricity into light. That is five times more light output than with a common light bulb, which emits 95 percent of the electricity as heat. CFLs are, additionally, more durable than light bulbs: Two qualities that support their use in areas where electricity is limited, such as rural regions. Solar light suppliers also distribute CFLs, because they can operate with smaller modules and batteries.
But: CFL energy saving lamps are hazardous waste. They contain mercury and are composed of various elements (electronics, luminary, socket) that have to be disposed of separately. In order to protect the health of workers, this is only possible in specialized facilities. Such facilities are cost and energy intensive.
The WHO, the EU commission, and practically all health authorities rate mercury as a health hazard. When it accumulates in the body, it damages the nervous system, lungs, and kidneys. For babies and fetuses there is an intensified health danger. Should a CFL break, authorities recommend airing the room and leaving it for fifteen minutes and the shards are not to be gathered with bare hands.
In July 2010, the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety of the European Parliament published the recommendation to adopt measures for improved recycling systems for electronic trash, by means of which a quota of 65 percent is achievable. The consulting group hereby refers to the European Electronics Recyclers Association (EERA). However, that which is promoted for the EU does not apply to countries in Asia or Africa. Whereas the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) formulates at least borderline values for Asian and other non-European countries, for Africa there are no guidelines. There, it remains up to CFL distributors to determine what happens with the used lamps.
When the EU calculates with a mere 65 percent recycling quota after increased efforts (e.g., a deposit system), then what will the situation be in countries in which the majority of the population lives in rural regions? With a population that has no experience with recycling in the form of returns? Where there is no recycling infrastructure? The quota will most likely be around zero.
There are alternatives. For example, LED lamps are becoming less expensive and are producing stronger light, and their disposal does not present any problems in terms of pollutants such as mercury (see also the report in sun connect no. 1).

Source: sun-connect 6 | July 2011 (p. 7)