Qin Shi Huangdi, China’s first emperor, united the country by force and guile. But he dreamed of eternal rule, so his doctors prescribed him longevity pills mixed with mercury and jade.
It didn’t work. The emperor grew increasingly paranoid before succumbing to mercury poisoning. He was 50 years old.
An old story. But the toxic metal that killed the emperor continues to menace Chinese consumers today. Except this time around it is appearing in fluorescent light bulbs, designed more to extend the life of the planet.
Lighting consumes nearly an eighth of China’s power supply, and the “green” bulbs are part of the government’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
They work by passing electricity through mercury vapour, using two-thirds less energy than ordinary “incandescent” bulbs and lasting more than eight times longer. The government subsidised the sale of 120 million such bulbs last year.
The benefits are so attractive that some countries have even banned incandescent bulbs. China is now the world’s leading producer of eco light bulbs as well as one of the largest consumers (see WiC15).
But what happens to the mercury once the lights go out?
That is a question that seems to have been overlooked in the rush to calculate just how much energy the new light bulbs will save. It turns out that most fluorescent bulbs aren’t recycled, and that they could contaminate the nation’s water supplies.
That leaves environmental protection officials with a major issue in dealing with the large number of bulbs that are disposed of daily.
The bulbs don’t contain much mercury, but it doesn’t take much to have dire consequences.
“A single energy-saving bulb usually contains an average of 0.5 milligrams of mercury,” warns the National Development and Reform Commission’s Energy Research Institute expert Liu Hong, “1 milligram of mercury is enough to pollute about 360 tonnes of water.”
There is no quick-fit solution. “The mercury may pollute the water and the soil even if you burn or bury the used bulbs,” warns Jinan University Professor Li Qusheng. He wants the government to start setting up “special treatment centres” in response.
Others are aware of the dangers too. The US Environmental Protection Agency recommends that anyone who breaks a fluorescent bulb should ventilate the room for at least 15 minutes, wash their hands, and safely dispose of the debris.
But low profits mean that recycling companies aren’t hugely motivated to respond. A Guangzhou-based recycling chief recently told the China Daily he doesn’t even bother collecting used bulbs from households. “We earn just about [$5.85] from selling a tonne of those used bulbs to glass recycling agents,” he said, “the profit is low if you compare the margin we get from recycling other waste products.”
Mercury poisoning is a particular hazard for the miners who dig out the mercury ore and the factory workers who assemble the bulbs. Last week 152 workers at publicly-listed Foshan Electrical Lighting were diagnosed with poisoning. Their symptoms reportedly included hair loss, headaches and tremors. Chronic poisoning can cause nerve and brain damage.
Light emitting diodes (LEDs) offer one solution. They don’t use mercury at all, and have a usable life three times the existing bulbs. But right now they’re 10 times more expensive.
So, in the short term, the government is scrambling to sort out the mess. According to the China Youth Daily, a $147 million fund to “prevent and control” heavy metal pollution has been set up by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Time for some bright ideas.Battle of the bulb
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