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A Toxics-Free Future


Toxics Link: “Nothing has been done to prevent mercury contamination in India. There is no system to recycle CFLs.”

Fluorescent bulbs put Capital's health at risk as toxic mercury poisons air and water

A massive amount of mercury - the toxic element that makes Compact Fluorescent Lamps and bulbs (CFLs) work - may be silently accumulating in the atmosphere thanks to the gross mismanagement of used and broken CFLs. 

A new study by environmental research organisation Toxics Link shows that Delhi alone could account for 14.93 million pieces of CFLs in a single year while releasing 74.65 kg of mercury into the ambient air and groundwater. 

This is when chronic mercury exposure by inhalation, even at concentrations as low as 0.7–42 μg/m3, is enough to kill by mercury poisoning. 

Even six years after the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) prescribed guidelines for establishment of Light Recycling Units (LRUs) and trained handlers to dismantle CFLs, no such facility has been set up either in Delhi or anywhere in India. 

In the Capital, where this survey was conducted, 82 per cent of consumers said they dump broken CFLs in dustbins while the rest are sold as glass scrap. 

At the junkyards - Shastri Park, Old Seelampur, Mustafabad, Moti Nagar, Pritam Pura and Jahangir Puri - these are dismantled and washed by hand. The water is then thrown either on the ground or into drains. 

Moreover, the entire procedure is often done by children. The effect that exposure to mercury will have on their bodies will show years on. 

Toxics Link Senior Programme Coordinator Piyush Mohapatra said: “Mercury is one of the most toxic metals. It enters the body through skin or inhalation and can lead to shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, increased blood pressure and headache. 

According to World Health Organisation, inhalation of mercury vapour, especially in pregnant women and children, can damage the nervous, digestive and immune systems. Once in the environment, it turns into a deadlier ‘methyl mercury’ which enters the food chain and keeps on magnifying.” 

After the methyl mercury contamination of sea water killed more than a 1,000 people in Japan in the 1950s, the Minamata Convention came into being and India became a signatory in 2014. 

Toxics Link Associate Director Satish Sinha said: “Nothing has been done to prevent mercury contamination in India. There is no system to recycle CFLs.” 

Most people interviewed in the survey said they don’t take any precautions when handling a CFL. In the event of breaking, they clean it using a broom and a paper, mostly with bare hands. If the CFL is broken, scrap dealers taper off any remnant glass containing mercury at the dump site. Sometimes, they sell intact CFL bulbs to the plastic recyclers after breaking the glass top at the dump site. They store CFL like any other waste material in the open or in cardboards. 

“Informal recyclers were found washing CFL bulbs in boiling water to clean the white coating and throwing the water containing mercury into drains. This must be stopped and authorised recycling units set up,” said Mohapatra.