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Mercury in Compact Fluorescent Lamps

5. Do environmental benefits of compact fluorescent lamps outweigh potential risks?

    Benefits Potential Risks
    Lower electricity use and greenhouse gas emissions than incandescent and halogen lamps

    Lower overall mercury releases as a result of use and disposal than incandescent lamps (taking into account mercury emissions from coal fired power plants)
    CFLs that break accidentally could pose a potential direct risk to the health of consumers.

    Mercury released from CFLs that are disposed of inappropriately could pose a potential risk to the environment
    Unbalanced scales
    Source: Wikimedia 

    On the one hand, CFLs consume less electricity than conventional household lamps so they offer some clear benefits in that they lead to lower emissions of mercury, greenhouse gases and other pollutants from power plants. On the other hand, CFLs contain mercury which is a hazardous substance so there is a potential health risk in the mercury released from lamps that break accidentally in the consumer’s home or after they have been thrown with the general refuse. It is very difficult to weigh benefits against these potential risks and determine the relative importance of these different aspects: effects of greenhouse gases on global warming, mercury released to the environment and potential effects on human health.

    The EC Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER) is of the opinion that compact fluorescent lamps offer a net environmental benefit compared to the other light bulbs considered, even if their mercury content is taken into account.

    On potential risks SCHER concluded:

    Compact fluorescent lamps that break accidentally in a consumer’s home are not expected to pose any health risks to adults. However, no conclusions can be drawn on the potential risks to children, namely because there is a lack of data about the possible oral intake from dust and hand-to-mouth contact. In principle, a foetus can be exposed to mercury through its mother but the amount of mercury that can cross over from the mother’s blood is very limited so the risk of broken CFLs to the foetus is negligible. (see question 2).

    It is very unlikely that the use and disposal of compact fluorescent lamps poses any risk to the environment. However, facilities that collect and recycle them could pose a local, environmental risk if they do not deal appropriately with the released mercury (see question 3).

    When asked to weigh environmental gains from CFLs against any risks to human lives from accidental exposures, SCHER counsels some caution, as the relative weight given to such different aspects has to remain a matter for judgment in the risk management process. More...


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