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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.

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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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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



a math problem

"An ordinary energy-saving bulb contains five milligrammes of mercury". So, 1 gram of mercury can make 200 energy-saving bulbs, 1 ton of mercury can make 200*1000*1000=200 million energy-saving bulbs. In the beginning, the author quoted the overall total of such bulbs as "to 200 million". If these 200million bulbs are all wasted, it will release 1 ton of mercury to the air. Now comes the question, "Yu calculates that in 2006 incorrect disposal of mercury-contained bulbs released 70 to 80 tonnes of mercury into the environment", how was the number worked out?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Could it be news?

The content is neither new nor secret. Could China Dialogue include something fresh? Please don't destroy your reputation. Chinadialogue should contain both Chinese and foreign voices, and now the Chinese part seems to be mainly moderate articles written by other writers, not so professional or timely. It seems to me the gap between China and other countries remains wide and can't be narrowed in a short time. How many journalists are there of environment background? What kind of publicity do we need? China has always been in the case where people who hold the power of speech are mostly unprofessional, and some even harbor evil intentions.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




LED is the trend

Lights containing mercury are not limited to energy-saving bulbs, they also include fluorescent tubes, neon lights, and all sorts of HID bulbs---these constitute the more serious part of mercury release.

However, the trend is, LED lights will replace Energy-saving bulbs and neon lights. There are already a large number of LED lights and fluorescent tubes available in the market, but sold at a high price. As is estimated by Philips, 80% of traditional lights will have been replaced by LED by 2012. Japanese government provides high subsidy for LED purchasers. Chinese government largely supports the promotion of LED street lights. It is hopeful that subsidy policy for indoor LED lighting will also be promulgated.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Reply to Comment 1

Please read carefully. 200 million is the number of promoted energy-saving bulbs, and the latter refers to "China's scrapped lights containing mercury in 2006". Would you please think before you shoot?
Published articles are formal writings, writers always revise their works for several times before they have them issued. Please don't make snap judgement without a good understanding of the article.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



This is really depressing

This is really depressing. After all that judging and weighing the result is still the same.
Looks like it is necessary to do more research and development on LED technology for further support.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The reason

Promoting the use of energy-saving lightbulbs obviously has Chinese characteristics, where leaders make hasty decisions that are mostly collusions between officials and businesses. This is the crux of the matter.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



LED light sources pollute even more

The white light from LEDs need SiC, and the industry that provides its light is a high energy consumption and high polluting one. Developed countries have the technology but do not produce them and only buy the ones with 99.9% accuracy, which then become high accuracy, yet the low accuracy LED lights are produced in countries like China, and people often use them without knowing where it came from, and they do not know about it's high energy consumption and high pollution. It is exactly like when people advocate the environmentally friendliness of solar power, but forget how solar power panels are made.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The reasons behind

“The promotion of energy-saving lamps is obviously with Chinesecharacteristics. All of the issues are decided by officials, and most are lucrative for the decision-makers. This should be the crux of the problem.”Think about who are the parties who could benefit, perhaps it will be clearer.
What do you think?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


人家节能灯才1吨,而其他照明电器排了79吨 ,一起算在节能灯头上? 什么事情都是有利有弊,关键是要权衡。文中说,2.5g使人致死,而一个节能灯才5毫克,也就是说要5000个节能灯同时破碎,正好有一个人完全吸收才可能啊?而这种可能有多大?

reply to comment 1

Energy-saving bulbs only release 1 tonne while other kinds of lights release 79 tonnes. How can one blame energy-saving bulbs for the other 79 tonnes of emission? Every coin has two sides, the key is to keep the balance. According to the article, a single inhaled dose of 2.5 grammes mercury can cause death, but an energy-saving bulb only contains five milligrammes of mercury, which is to say, only when 5000 energy-saving bulbs explode at the same time can a person die after having inhaled all the released mercury.
But of course, if one has nothing to do, it still seems very good for him/her to find some possible harms.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Is this a China problem only?

Is this problem only confined to China? What sorts of policies exist in other countries regarding disposal of energy-saving bulbs?