Fluorescent lamps are a popular lighting option for businesses and consumers that are looking for ways to conserve energy and cut down on wastes. Since mercury - a very useful but very toxic element - is used to conduct the charge in fluorescent lamps, these benefits can come at a significant environmental and health risk.
Alternative lighting options, such as energy-efficient and long-lasting light emitting diodes (LEDs), hold promise for the future. However, LED lighting currently is not feasible for most lighting applications, such as mass indoor lighting in office buildings, due to their significantly higher cost.
With an increasing focus on green solutions brought on by public demand as well as new rules and regulations, the use of fluorescent lamps will continue to grow - especially as governments around the world pass measures to phase out the use of traditional incandescent light bulbs in favor of more efficient lighting alternatives. To minimize the environmental and health risks of mercury vapor released from broken fluorescent lamps, used lamps should be properly packaged, stored, and transported to recycling facilities - where the mercury vapor can be safely extracted.
A Package Designed to Contain Mercury Vapor
A recent study conducted by my research team at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Division of Environmental Health Sciences, measured the performance of three different types of packaging configurations that are used to store and transport used fluorescent lamps.1
The first package, a single cardboard box, was selected to represent the packages in which new fluorescent lamps are sold. Many customers reuse these packages for storing used lamps and eventually transporting the used lamps for disposal or recycling. In each of ten replicate experiments, each box was loaded with 40 used low-mercury T4 fluorescent lamps and then dropped and shaken in a test chamber until the lamps were broken. In the following six hours, the level of mercury vapor inside the test chamber was measured and recorded. The single-layer box was the least effective in containing mercury vapor of all three groups, with airborne mercury vapor levels in the test chamber exceeding all workplace exposure levels, as defined by state and federal authorities.
The second group of packages enhanced this single cardboard layer with a plastic bag. One box in this category featured an unsealed thin plastic liner, and the other cardboard box included a tape-sealed plastic bag. The third group of packages added a second layer of cardboard to the design, with the bags positioned between the two cardboard layers. This group also contained two package varieties: a double-box with a thicker, tape-sealed plastic bag, and a double box with a foil-plastic laminate bag containing a zip closure. Both of the packages in the third group performed better than the other packaging configurations, but out of all of the configurations, only the final package - the double box with the foil-plastic laminate bag - kept levels in the test chamber below all workplace exposure regulations and guidelines.