Recently, the Malawi Government, with assistance from the British Government, embarked on an Efficient Energy Lighting Project in a bid to reduce persistent blackouts in the country.
During the launch of the project, officials touted the bulbs as the most efficient and that they will drastically reduce their power bills. Above all, they said this would considerably help in reducing load-shedding exercises.
Asked to clear the mist on the speculation to the effect that these bulbs contain mercury which is hazardous to health, an official from Escom admitted there were traces of mercury in these bulbs, but was quick to advise that the quantity was not harmful and mumbled something to the effect that customers are supposed to bring dead cells sealed in plastic bags to Escom offices for safe disposition.
At this point, curiosity got the better part of me and I wanted to find out why should Escom put such a cumbersome process for such a harmless product. This then brought me to an article purportedly published by Mail Online dated January 6 2008 which had similar warning as follows:
â€˜The new Eco-friendly saving bulbs contain toxic mercury. Energy-saving bulbs are so dangerous that everyone must leave the room for at least 15 minutes if one falls to the floor and breaks, a government department has warned.â€™
Another warning gave out these precautions:
â€˜The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has issued the following advice on what to do if a low-energy light bulb breaks: Vacate the room taking care not to step on the glass littering the floor. Do not use vacuum cleaner to clear up the mess, put on rubber gloves and sweep the debris into dustpan, place the remains in a plastic bag and seal it, do not put the bag in normal household dustbin, but in a municipal recycling bin for batteries and try not to inhale dust from the broken bulb.â€™
Reading through all this and other literature on the same, the bigger picture indicates that the energy saver bulbs have a dark shadow and this is in form of mercury which must be handled with care. Much as these Compact Fluorescent Light(CFL) bulbs popularly known as energy saver bulbs have been touted to be several times efficient than the incandescent light bulbs and all its bargains to do with the environment, energy crisis, reduced bills and the global warming, there is need to tread carefully. The CFLs packaging itself has kept no secret that they contain mercury and that they should be disposed of â€˜properlyâ€™.
This is where our real problem begins. Looking at the basic operation of a CFL bulb, the tube is filled with mercury and when an electrical input is injected, the high voltage energy ionises the mercury gas which radiates ultraviolet and the ultraviolet light frequency gets mostly into visible white light by the lumena-flourescence powder.
Mercury is a heavy metal occurring in several forms, all of which can produce toxic effects in high enough doses. The toxic effects include damage to the brain, kidney and lungs and its poisoning can result in several diseases.
Despite the amount of mercury being found in energy saver bulbs being small and estimated at less than 5mg, its presence alone should raise a red flag. It is nice to look for energy efficiency, but not when it comes at a cost for our health. The notion that these bulbs may not be harmful because they contain small amount of mercury may not hold water in the long run if these small amounts are cumulatively mishandled for a long time where these bulbs will eventually be installed countrywide.Â Â
If anything, it is important that all necessary information and precautions are clearly made available to the public on how to handle this rather sensitive product at every turn of the implementation. Thanks to the British Government through the Department for International Development (DfID), we have an opportunity to move together â€˜towards power all day every dayâ€™. Otherwise, if shrouded in secrecy, these things have a potential to become a time bomb if not given the necessary attention and care.— The author is an electrical engineer working with Escom but writing in his personal capacity