Mercury Vapors Detected in Lamp Waste Recycling Sites

Quezon City. Groups concerned with occupational and environmental health today pressed the government and the industry to introduce a system for the environmentally-sound management of mercury-containing lamp waste for households and small businesses and institutional users.

The groups renewed their appeal for action after the EcoWaste Coalition’s AlerToxic Patrol detected disturbing levels of mercury vapor in lamp waste recycling sections of the Pier 18 Garbage Transfer Station in Tondo, Manila.

The toxic investigation was held in double observance of the Earth Day on April 22 and the World Day for Safety and Health at Work on April 28.

Comprising the investigative team were the representatives of Ban Toxics, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Health Care Without Harm and the EcoWaste Coalition Secretariat.

“The informal recycling of CFLs is done in the most archaic way where spent lamps are first collected and stored in heaps or kept in old rice sacks and then individually smashed with a hammer to retrieve the recyclable parts,” said Thony Dizon, chemical safety project coordinator of the EcoWaste Coalition.

“We need to emphasize that it is not only the lamp waste recyclers who bear the brunt of toxic pollution. The mercury vapor escapes as the glass tubing is broken and travels around, exposing the workers, their children and the environment to this toxic metal,” he added.

“The data we collected should serve as a warning signal of toxic danger in our midst. Our investigation, we hope, would prompt government and business leaders into enforcing mercury pollution prevention measures such as a practical system for collecting lamp waste and ensuring their safe management,” he said.

Using a hand-held instrument called “Jerome J-405,” an ambient air analyzer, the toxic patrollers today visited and obtained mercury vapor data from places where the breaking of mercury-containing compact fluorescent lamps or CFLs is taking place.During the investigation, 14 used CFLs of different brands and wattages were tested in two different CFL breaking sites. One product recorded an excessively high and dangerous mercury vapor at 502.40 micrograms per cubic meter (mcg/m3). The average reading for the 14 tested products was 117.20 mcg/m3.

To show the gravity of the mercury pollution documented, the groups cited the “permissible exposure limit” for mercury vapor as set by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is 0.1 milligram per cubic meter (or 100 mcg/m3) of air, warning that “a worker’s exposure to mercury vapour shall at no time exceed this ceiling level.”

A case study prepared by the EcoWaste Coalition and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives concluded that “the woeful lack of a deliberate system for collecting and managing CFLs after their useful lives means that spent mercury-containing lamps are simply thrown into regular trash, which is not only irresponsible, but also unlawful” as these are classified as “special waste” requiring separate handling and treatment. A focus group discussion held as part of the study shows that 80% of the respondents are not aware of the various routes of mercury exposure, 70% work as waste pickers seven times a week, working for an average of 10.5 hours per day, 90% break CFL tubes without nose covering, 80% recycle CFLs wearing no protective clothing, and 60% break lamp waste with bare hands. Improper lamp waste disposal adds mercury into the waste stream and exposes waste workers to mercury from lamps broken during the process of collection, transportation, dumping and recycling in unregulated conditions, the case study revealed. According to the case study, spent CFLs not reclaimed by enterprising recyclers such as dumpsite and itinerant waste pickers as well as “paleros” (garbage crew of trucks collecting trash) would normally end up being dumped in dumpsites or landfills, which could lead to the discharge of elemental mercury that can easily contaminate the water supply and bioaccumulate in the food chain as organic mercury.Data from the Philippine Efficient Lighting Market Transformation Project (PELMATP) show that 88% of households, 77 % of commercial establishments, 33% of hospitals, 9% of offices and .83% of schools surveyed disposed of their mercury-containing lamp waste as domestic waste. The same data indicate that 67% of mercury-containing lamp waste from hospitals are sold to junk shops, while 15% from schools, 9% from offices, 3% from commercial establishments, and 1% from households do the same. A government-published guidebook on “Mercury-Containing Lamp Waste Management” warns that “mercury and its compounds are highly toxic especially to the developing nervous system, which is very sensitive to all forms of mercury. Exposure to high levels of mercury can cause permanent brain damage, central nervous system disorders, memory loss, heart disease, kidney failure, liver damage, vision loss, sensation loss, and tremors.” -end- Reference: Guidebook on the Management of Mercury-Containing Lamp Wastes: http://www.doe.gov.ph/pelmatp/LWM%20Guidebook_final.pdf
Occupational Safety and Health Guideline for Mercury Vapor: http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/healthguidelines/mercuryvapor/recognition.html