Blog: Needed – nationwide action plan for recovery of toxic mercury from light bulbs


Many Canadians will be glad to see the end of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) with their harsh light and often flickering glow. Despite longstanding outreach campaigns, widespread ignorance persists about mercury in CFLs.

Although the environment is burdened by other, larger mercury sources, a broken CFL is in direct contact with people at home, work, or alongside poorly maintained vendor take-back bins.

Introduced in the 1980s, and widely adopted in the past two decades, many millions of CFLs have been sold and used across Canada. Regulatory action has reduced their mercury content. The fact remains that when CFLs are broken during shipping, handling, retailing, use, disposal and/or recycling, mercury vapour is released.

The neurodevelopmental risks of mercury are greatest for the developing fetus and child with lifelong consequences. Many years of public outreach about CFL risks seems to have had little effect. Since at least 2006, in our outreach work on children’s environmental health issues, we have seen a profound lack of public awareness about mercury in CFLs, about the risk of mercury vapour from broken CFLs, and about proper disposal methods. Parents and service providers who work with families frequently express surprise and dismay about this common exposure source to a highly toxic substance.

It seems clear that CFLs are gradually being replaced with the even more energy efficient light emitting diode (LED) technology. However, for the foreseeable future, there is a serious problem with inadequate disposal/recycling of CFLs including significant risks associated with mercury exposure if CFLs are broken in the home. Immediate and concerted action is needed during at least the next five to ten years as this technology shifts.

The Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment (CPCHE) is thus requesting that the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) develop a Canada-Wide Standard (CWS) for Extended Producer Responsibility of CFLs addressing safe use and a comprehensive disposal plan.

This action is a necessary complement to the CCME Canada-Wide Standard for mercury in CFLs, published in 2001 (but now impossible to find on the CCME website). Fifteen years after creating this CWS, mercury-containing CFLs remain an important source of mercury and a threat to public health, especially to children.

In 2014, the CCME Progress Report on the Canada-Wide Action Plan for Extended Producer Responsibility found that progress on extended producer responsibility in Canada has been slow, or inadequate. This report placed CFLs in Category 1, tagged for action by 2015. But, unlike other Category 1 products, “slower than anticipated progress” has occurred on CFLs with the CCME pointing to differences across jurisdictions as an ongoing challenge to harmonization and coordinated action across Canada. This reality reinforces the need for a Canada-Wide Standard for extended producer responsibility for the collection and disposal of CFLs.

Environment Canada has estimated that approximately 10 to 15 percent of CFLs sold in Canada are recycled; the rest go to landfills. This dismal showing reflects widespread public ignorance about this issue. Environment Canada’s website makes the dubiously helpful tip of retaining the CFL original packaging (these bulbs can last for ten years or more) and using it to store spent bulbs until taking them to hazardous waste disposal. Our research indicates that where CFL disposal facilities are available (often in retail locations), they can be poorly maintained.

in-store-CFL-disposal1_2      in-store-CFL-disposal2_0

The above CFL recycling box is located in a large retail outlet in Trenton, Ontario directly adjacent to a busy row of cash registers. The customers lined up to pay and especially those working on the cash registers are likely continuously exposed to mercury vapour from broken CFLs from the unsealed box due to its incorrect, and uncorrected, use for long tube fluorescent bulbs (and despite prominently displayed notices on the box to not use it for the longer bulbs).

We found the same problem (see below, left) at another large retail location in a Toronto suburb with long tube bulbs sticking out of a (thus, no longer sealed) box located next to a busy customer service desk. In one retail location a recycling station (below, right) was well-equipped with plastic bags available for CFLs (as well as batteries and other hazardous materials) for placement in sealed units located well away from customers and workers.

CFL-disposal-beside-service-counter_0-260x414    CFL-battery-disposal_0-365x205

The above examples arise from canvassing dozens of retail locations. In many cases, we found that no recycling facility was available. Often we were told that such facilities had been removed. Occasionally, we were told that the recycling facility was located away from public areas. Although this survey was small (and only in southern Ontario), it demonstrated an overall lack of awareness about the hazard of mercury vapour arising from broken CFLs and the overall inadequacy of albeit well-intentioned approaches.

Mercury-vapour standards or guidance exist at the federal level in the United States and in some US states. They variously recommend tolerable indoor air levels over the long term or for acute short-term exposure. Canada does not appear to have any such guidance. Studies by the New Jersey and Maine Departments of Environmental Protection note that broken CFLs can result in hazardous levels of airborne mercury many times higher than levels recommended for both long-term risk and short-term acute hazard.

Airborne levels of mercury after a CFL is broken will vary depending on the CFL, (older CFLs have higher mercury content), the ventilation, clean-up methods, and more, but it is clear that in all cases, broken CFLs present a hazard. More important, where clean-up is inadequate, cumulative exposure levels of mercury can be very high and can last over ten weeks.

The good news is that in many provinces, municipal waste management programs will take CFLs at hazardous waste depots and CFL recycling facilities exist across the country, recently prompting Liberal Darren Fisher, MP for Dartmouth – Cole Harbour to introduce a private member’s bill that would create a national strategy for safe disposal of CFLs.

Whether by Mr. Fisher’s national strategy or a CCME Canada-Wide Standard, we collectively have a window of time over the next fifteen to twenty years to get this right. The time to act is now. Despite the tiny amount of mercury in each CFL, the cumulative total from millions of CFLs is very large. More important, like so many other highly toxic substances, toxicity occurs at very low levels, exposure can often occur in the home, and children are at the greatest risk.