Chinese workers making energy-saving fluorescent lightbulbs for Western consumers have been sickened by the hundreds due to mercury poisoning.
While poor factory conditions in China shoulder most of the blame, the news does raise serious questions about just how “green” the mercury-rich fluorescent lightbulbs actually are.
Without a doubt, fluorescent lightbulbs have the potential to significantly reduce worldwide carbon emissions if they continue to be put into wide use. In England, for instance, the atmosphere will be saved an estimated 5m tons of carbon dioxide a year due to the bulbs alone. When it comes to the bigger issues, such as combating global climate change and reducing energy consumption, energy-efficient fluorescents are clearly the green alternative to traditional incandescents. And of course, consumers save more on their electricity bill too, a crucial advantage in this global recession as annual energy costs go up over the hot summer months.
In fact, as air conditioners continuously whir throughout the summer and the energy grid strains to meet the demand in the U.S., it’s difficult to imagine how it could be done without more efficient bulbs and appliances.
But while the environmental and economic advantages of using fluorescent bulbs are paramount, there are also some costs. Fluorescent bulbs work by using electricity to excite mercury vapor, and mercury can be a dangerous, toxic pollutant, perhaps most readily vilified due to its prevalence in the ocean food chain. Thus, proper disposal and care of fluorescent lightbulbs need to come hand in hand with their wide use, otherwise they bring the risk of increased mercury contamination in the environment.
The problem is confounded in the manufacturing process if that mercury is not safely contained and controlled. And that’s precisely the concern in China, where most of the world’s fluorescent lightbulbs are produced, and where factory conditions are poorly regulated and environmentally porous.
In fact, in many cases the factory conditions are downright deplorable, and aside from the long term environmental damage that comes from mercury contamination, hundreds of Chinese workers are exposed to mercury poisoning on a daily basis. These problems have recently escalated due to a rapid increase in foreign demand, particularly because of the European Union’s directive making fluorescent bulbs compulsory by 2012.
The standards for health and safety in the Chinese factories can vary from high tech operations to sweatshops. Some tests have demonstrated concentrations of mercury in factory workers that were 150 times the accepted standard, and many are frequently hospitalized. In one Chinese factory, 121 out of 123 employees had excessive mercury levels.
While fluorescent light bulbs are a near necessity moving into the future in combating climate change and saving on energy consumption, conscious consumers need to be more aware of where and how their bulbs are produced. Furthermore, people need to be better educated about proper handling and disposal of fluorescent bulbs.
Ironically, in China people have actually been aware of mercury’s toxic properties for over 2,000 years. Legend has it that China’s first emperor, Qin, died after swallowing a pill laced with jade and mercury thinking it would bring him eternal life. But there’s no imaginable reason, in our modern world, as to why Chinese workers should take on that symbolic burden for the sake of the West in the global battle against climate change.
Image Credit: Paul Keller on Flickr under a Creative Commons License