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fluorescent lights

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Fluorescent lights are more energy efficient and have a longer use life than incandescent lights. There are, however, some health and environmental issues associated with the use and disposal of fluorescent light bulbs. Fortunately, recycling of fluorescent bulbs significantly reduces these problems.

There are two parts to fluorescent lights: the bulb and the ballast in the fixture which holds the bulb. Each has its own issues.

Fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury. The standard fluorescent lamp contains approximately 20 milligrams of mercury. While there are no known health hazards from exposure to lamps that are intact, improper disposal of fluorescent lamps can contaminate the environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that over 800 million lamps are produced each year to replace 800 million lamps that are then disposed. Since 1 gram of mercury is enough to contaminate a 2-acre pond, there is enough mercury in those lamps to contaminate 20 million acres of water.

Mercury is toxic to the human nervous system. Chronic breathing of mercury vapors can cause a range of physical symptoms, including inability to coordinate body movement and impairment of hearing, speech and vision. Exposure to mercury in other forms can lead to skin rashes and kidney damage.

Elemental mercury that is released to the environment can be deposited into lakes, rivers, and the oceans where a biological process takes place in which the mercury is converted into methylmercury, a highly toxic organic form of mercury. The methylmercury is then consumed by various animals in the food chain where it bioaccumulates, concentrating to higher and higher levels in larger animals. Consumption of larger mammals could cause elevated levels of methylmercury in humans, resulting in neurological damage to unborn children. According to estimates by the National Wildlife Federation, 85,000 U.S. women of childbearing age in a given year are exposed to elevated methylmercury levels sufficient to affect the brain development of their babies.

Even though mercury in fluorescent lamps is a problem, the solution is not to stop using energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs. The largest man-made source of mercury in the atmosphere is fossil fuel combustion (58% of total). When the mercury in a fossil fuel is heated in a combustor, it turns into a vapor and escapes into the atmosphere. When moisture vapor in the atmosphere turns to rain, mercury returns to the earth and is deposited in streams, lakes, and other waterways. On average, fossil-fueled power plants emit 0.04 milligrams of mercury per kilowatt-hour sold. So the energy-savings reduces more mercury in the environment than is added by the potential disposal problem of the bulb. When fluorescent bulbs are properly recycled, there is a major reduction in environmental mercury from the energy savings, with little or no added mercury from the bulb.

Old fluorescent fixtures with PCB ballasts. Because of the toxicity, persistence in the environment, and potential ecological damage via water pollution, the manufacture of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) was discontinued in the United States in the late 1970s. Human exposure to these possible carcinogens can cause skin, liver, and reproductive disorders. However, about half of the one billion ballasts that are estimated to be currently installed were manufactured before 1979, and these usually contain high concentrations of PCBs.

Fortunately, they are easy to identify.
  • All ballasts manufactured through 1979 contain PCBs.
  • Ballasts manufactured after 1979 that do not contain PCBs are labeled "No PCBs."
  • If a ballast is not labeled "No PCBs," assume it contains PCBs.
The EPA has regulations regarding the disposal of PCB ballasts as part of the Toxic Substances Control Act. Under this Act, householders are allowed to infrequently dispose of small numbers of PCB ballasts in a municipal solid waste landfill.

If the ballast is leaking PCBs, they must be disposed of as regulated hazardous waste. Although very few ballasts leak, those that are leaking can usually be identified. Most PCB leaks are visible. If you see clear or yellow oil on the surface of a ballast, you probably have a leaking ballast. Wear chemically resistant gloves and place the ballast immediately in a heavy plastic bag. For proper packing, storage, transportation, and disposal information call the EPA assistance information hotline at (202) 554-1404, extension 3.

For larger quantities of PCB ballasts, such as are used by commercial and industrial sectors, the EPA encourages voluntary ballast recycling, or collection and disposal in chemical waste landfills or high-temperature incinerators.

Thirteen states ban PCB ballasts from permitted landfills, and another 17 states have special policies or requirements regarding disposal of PCB ballasts, so it is best to check with your local facilities for recycling and disposal instructions.

New fluorescent fixtures with DEHP ballasts. Beginning in 1979, Di (2-ethylhexyl) phathatlate (DEHP) was used to replace PCBs in certain ballasts. DEHP in its pure form is listed as a hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, however, once it has been used in a lighting ballast, it is no longer hazardous. There are no federal regulations for householders regarding the disposal of DEHP ballasts, however, it is always wise to check with your local facilities for local disposal regulations or recycling opportunities before throwing these ballasts in the trash.

Recycle fluorescent lights. When fluorescent light bulbs are recycled, mercury and the phosphor powder, the glass, metal, and other materials are sorted out for recycling. 100% of the glass, aluminum and other metals can be reclaimed and reused. Up to 99.9 percent of the mercury can recovered and useable for other purposes.

The ballast can be recycled to reclaim valuable metals such as copper and steel, thereby reducing the volume of solid waste sent to landfills.

Prepare fluorescent lights for recycling. If fluorescent light bulbs must be stored for recycling, store them in their cardboard tubes and in boxes protected from damage. When a fluorescent lamp is broken, the mercury can evaporate at room temperature.

Environmental Health & Safety Onlinepad
A comprehensive article on recycling fluorescent lights.

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