Laws and Regulations
Organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are tasked with the challenge of simultaneously encouraging the use of energy-efficient fluorescent lamps, while also protecting the environment and people from harmful mercury vapor. The EPA permits common carrier shipment to recycling facilities, and the federal Universal Waste Rule requires packaging to be compatible with the contents of lamps, structurally sound and adequate to prevent breakage - but this rule does not specifically address mercury vapor release. In 2005, a provision was added that requires packaging for mercury-containing products to be "reasonably designed to prevent the escape of mercury into the environment by volatilization or any other means." However, fluorescent lamps were excluded from this rule.2
The EPA estimates that only 20 to 25 percent of fluorescent lamps are recycled, and some of these lamps still release hazardous quantities of mercury vapor due to the insufficient packaging configurations that they are stored and transported in. Furthermore, the remaining 75 to 80 percent of used fluorescent lamps are put in dumpsters and other trash containers, eventually ending up in landfills—where they will continue to emit mercury into the surrounding environment. While fluorescent lights provide significant advantages over traditional incandescent lights and are more affordable and readily available than LEDs, businesses and consumers must take the initiate to properly dispose of used lamps. Only then will fluorescent lamps truly provide a green lighting solution.
- Glenz, Tracy T., Lisa M. Brosseau, and Richard W. Hoffbeck. "Preventing Mercury Vapor Release from Broken Fluorescent Lamps during Shipping." Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association 59 (2009): 266-72. Print.
- Standards for Universal Waste Management: Applicability—Lamps. CFR, Part 273.5, Title 40, 2007.
Dr. Lisa M. Brosseau, ScD, CIH, has conducted research and published in the areas of respiratory protection, aerosol exposures, hazardous materials, and safety interventions in small businesses. She serves on the editorial review board of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene and is currently the Vice Chair of ACGIH, a globally-recognized organization committed to developing scientific guidelines for workplace safety and health.