Urgent Action Sought to Curb Unsafe Disposal of Mercury-Containing Lamp Waste

(EDSA, Mandaluyong City)

(Osmena St., Makati City)

(F.B. Harrison St., Pasay City)

(Solana St., Intramuros, Manila)

(J.P. Rizal Ave., near corner Don Chino Roces Ave., Makati City)

The improper disposal of busted fluorescent lamps releases mercury, a potent neurotoxin, into the environment, endangering the health of waste workers and the public.

Environmental health groups aired this warning after conducting a “photo documentation” to find out how spent lamps are disposed of by “small quantity waste generators,” or entities that accumulate less than 100 busted lamps a year.

With the help of “Basura Patrollers” from the Diocese of Caloocan Ecology Ministry, EcoWaste Coalition, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and Mother Earth Foundation, relevant photos were taken at random from January 24-27, 2012.

The photos were mostly taken via cellphone from garbage bins and heaps in pavements and sidewalks in the cities of Caloocan, Las Piñas, Makati, Mandaluyong, Manila, Navotas, Parañaque, Pasay, San Juan and Quezon.

“Our investigation confirms the unsafe practice of simply leaving or throwing mercury-containing lamp waste in the streets as if these were just candy wrappers,” said Manny Calonzo, Basura Patroller, EcoWaste Coalition.

“Busted lamps were dumped with typical trash or left by the roadside, picked up by garbage collectors, sometimes crushed in compactor trucks and then hauled to landfills for final disposal,” he said.

“This is very disturbing since these spent bulbs are no ordinary discards. Reckless disposal can lead to lamp breakage and the discharge of its mercury content in vapor form,” he pointed out.

Citing information from a government-published “Primer on Mercury-Containing Lamp Waste Management,” the groups said that tubular fluorescent lamps can contain 3 to 50 mg. of mercury, while compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) can contain 1 to 25 mg. of mercury.

The health impacts of mercury release and contamination, according to the primer, can include brain damage, memory loss, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, loss of sensation and vision,tremors, heart disease, kidney failure, liver injury and reproductive system damage.

“Waste workers, particularly the paleros (garbage collectors) and the informal recyclers, are at risk of direct exposure to mercury vapors from broken lamps,” Calonzo pointed out.

Mercury vapor data obtained by the EcoWaste Coalition and its partner groups from the breaking of lamp waste for recycling in Pier 18 showed an average reading of over 117 micrograms per cubic meter (mcg/m3) with the highest reading at more than 502 mcg/m3.

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration has set a “permissible exposure limit” for mercury vapor at 0.1 milligram per cubic meter (or 100 mcg/m3), warning that “a worker’s exposure to mercury vapor shall at no time exceed this ceiling level.”

To reduce and eliminate occupational and community mercury exposures, national and local authorities should enforce a system for the environmentally-sound management of busted lamps, including a practical system for safe collection, storage and recycling, the groups said.

They further asked the authorities to fast track the adoption of a product take back system that will make manufacturers responsible for the management of their end-of-life fluorescent lamps.

The groups also emphasized the need to educate the waste workers and the public about the hazards of mercury in the waste stream and the need for precaution to prevent toxic exposure through ingestion, inhalation and eye/skincontact.