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Mercury in fluorescent bulbs risky

>Toronto Star - March 4, 2006
by John Spears

Energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs are being pushed as the next great thing for the environment, but officials acknowledge they still have work to do on one of the environmental drawbacks.

While the bulbs use less electricity than conventional bulbs, they also contain small amounts of mercury — a poisonous heavy metal. Mercury accumulates in living organisms and harms the brain, nervous system and kidneys. It also harms developing fetuses.

The bulbs come with vague warnings to "manage in accordance with disposal laws," but most householders likely have no idea what those laws are.

"The reality is, most people throw them in the garbage," acknowledged Tanya Bruckmueller of Toronto Hydro, which has encouraged householders to use the bulbs and has even given them away in a promotion with The Home Depot. A 13-watt compact fluorescent bulb provides about as much light as a 60-watt conventional bulb, which has no mercury, and lasts much longer. But the downside is that the fluorescent bulbs — whether compact or the more familiar long tubes — require special handling due to the mercury, which is used to produce their light.

When mercury ends up in a landfill, it can leach into the soil or enter the atmosphere.

If a compact fluorescent bulb breaks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advises householders to immediately air out the room to let mercury vapour escape. The broken glass should be swept up, not vacuumed, and then placed in a sealed bag.

Manitoba Hydro advises householders to wipe the area where the bulb broke with a damp paper towel, and to dispose of the towel with the shards of glass.

Most bulbs will burn out eventually without breaking.

Both Toronto Hydro and Ontario's energy ministry have the same advice: Store the burned-out bulbs in a safe place, and dispose of them when there's a community hazardous-waste collection.

In Toronto, there's generally one Environment Day per year in each ward, when local residents can bring hazardous waste to be safely disposed of.

During the rest of the year, the city's six solid-waste drop-off depots will take hazardous waste. Information is available at 416-338-2010.

In GTA municipalities outside Toronto, waste disposal centres will take hazardous waste, but residents must bring it to the following locations.
Peel Region: Brampton, Caledon and Mississauga.
York Region: Markham Vaughan and East Gwillimbury.
Durham Region: Oshawa, Port Perry, Pickering and the Township of Brock.
Halton Region: Milton.

Toronto also runs a "toxics taxi" service that collects household hazardous waste. The service can be reached at 416-392-4330.

Geoff Rathbone of Toronto's solid-waste management division said the used bulbs are sent to a Kitchener-area company that captures the mercury and sells it for reuse.

Disposal of compact fluorescent bulbs is mentioned on waste-management calendars distributed to households across the city, but not on the Toronto website — an omission that Rathbone said will be fixed.

Katrina Miller of the Toronto Environmental Alliance said ideally there would be some sort of system where consumers could return used bulbs.

In the northwest United States, for example, some stores take back used fluorescents for a 25-cent fee, Miller said. Her preference would be for a deposit-return system to encourage bulb recycling.

Stores are the logical places to collect old bulbs, she said, "because that's where people tend to go to buy these things. It tends to be the easiest place for consumers to go."

Nick Cowling of The Home Depot Canada said his company's stores are now selling slightly more compact fluorescent bulbs than conventional incandescents. Home Depot has promoted the bulbs more than other retailers and sells a higher percentage than its competitors, Cowling said.

The company would like to help consumers dispose of the bulbs safely, but it needs to study the issue, he said.

"We're trying to figure out a way to do it," he said.

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