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Monday, 23 February 2009
Page: 1561


Mr Slipper asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, in writing, on 2 June 2008:

In respect of non-incandescent light globes: (a) what is their mercury content; (b) how dangerous are they to (i) humans, and (ii) the environment; and (c) is there a preferred method for disposal?


Mr Garrett (Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts) —The answer to the honourable member’s question is as follows:

(a)   Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs), a type of non-incandescent lamp, are currently the most energy efficient and cost effective form of lighting for many applications in the home and or office. All fluorescent lamps including CFLs contain very small amounts of elemental mercury. Government and industry continue to work together to minimise the mercury content. A new standard will be introduced for CFLs that includes a maximum mercury content aligned with the European Commission standard of five milligrams (one two-hundredth of a gram) per bulb. The ordinary fluorescent tubes in current use contain approximately 15 milligrams of mercury per tube, consistent with the Australian Standard. These have been used safely in most commercial and public buildings in Australia and around the world for over 40 years. To put the amount of mercury contained in CFLs in context, five milligrams would fit on the tip of a ball point pen. The old mercury thermometers contain approximately 500 milligrams of mercury. With appropriate precautions regarding disposal in place, elemental mercury continues to be used safely in a variety of products including lamps, watch batteries, various medical instruments, and dental fillings. It is important to note that CFLs are not being mandated. More efficient forms of incandescent lighting will continue to be available, such as mains voltage halogen lamps. Mains voltage halogens have a very similar appearance to the traditional incandescent light bulb, do not contain mercury, can be used in all of the same fittings, and are readily available. The halogen gas they contain allows them to operate at a higher temperature, which results in higher efficiency levels. However, mains voltage halogens are not as energy efficient as CFL alternatives.

(b)  

(i)   The mercury contained in a CFL is sealed within the glass tubing of the lamp and can only be released if the glass is broken. Scientific investigations into the potential risks of mercury exposure from an accidentally broken CFL report, that for the average person poisoning is very unlikely because of the very small amounts involved. The recommended precautionary guidelines for the safe clean-up and disposal of broken CFLs is available at: http://www.environment.gov.au/settlements/energyefficiency/lighting.html#disposal. The concentration of mercury vapour released by a broken CFL, when measured directly above the broken lamp, can transiently exceed international guidelines for chronic exposure in ambient (outdoor) air. The term ‘chronic’ implies that the exposure is continuous over an extended period i.e. years. It is not appropriate to use these chronic guideline values when assessing possible risk from short term exposure. Moreover, the amount of mercury likely to be inhaled as a result of being near a broken CFL or cleaning one up is only a fraction of the average daily dietary mercury intake as identified by the National Health and Medical Research Council. While considered to be low, previous overseas research to assess the risk of mercury exposure from fluorescent lamps to waste collectors, processors and landfill workers, indicates that the concentration of mercury in air is unlikely to reach dangerous levels in these situations. Occupational Health and Safety requirements in each state and territory work to protect all workers and we would expect these to be applied to assist workers in the safe handling of all waste.

(b)  

(ii)   Mercury is among the most bio-concentrated trace metals in the food chain. It is a naturally occurring metal found in small quantities throughout the environment in both the atmosphere and in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. In a 2005 study conducted by the Department of Health and Aging, gaps were identified in our understanding of how mercury interacts with ecosystems, including how it is retained in an ecosystem and how much atmospherically-deposited mercury is transported into ecosystems. As a global pollutant, an accurate knowledge of the amounts of mercury released worldwide and from all sources is an important input into models of mercury distribution in the global environment, and in the formulation of effective control strategies. The Australian Government has commissioned work to properly analyse mercury sources, transportation and fate as well as current regulatory and voluntary measures related to mercury in Australia. The information gathered in this process will be used to assist in developing an international approach to the issue of mercury. The next meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Working Group on mercury will occur in October 2008. A meeting of the UNEP Governing Council will follow in February 2009, where international discussions on how to approach the issue of mercury on a global scale will continue. When taking into consideration the total amount of mercury emitted from both incandescent light bulbs and CFLs over the life of the lamps, less mercury is released into the environment from the use of CFLs than incandescent lamps even though CFLs contain mercury. This is because burning coal to produce electricity releases mercury. Because CFLs use only about twenty percent of the electricity which incandescent bulbs use to produce the same amount of light, only about twenty percent of the coal needs to be burnt and so only about twenty percent of the amount of mercury is released.

(c)   In June 2007 the Environment Protection and Heritage Council (EPHC) decided to investigate issues associated with the disposal of CFLs. Work is continuing with the Australian Council of Recyclers and other industry and government stakeholders, gathering information on the nature and extent of problems associated with the disposal of fluorescent lamps that contain mercury. EPHC has sought advice on whether waste CFLs should be listed as a priority waste for national action, and expects to consider this advice at the first EPHC meeting in 2009. Depending on EPHC’s assessment of the need, some form of product stewardship scheme may be implemented. Such a scheme would aim to safely recover mercury from CFLs or otherwise dispose of CFLs more safely. At present however, most CFLs are domestic waste and are disposed of to landfill. A large number of landfills impose higher charges for commercial quantities of fluorescent lamps (generally fluorescent tubes) or only accept domestic quantities of mercury containing lamps for landfilling. As a result commercial quantities of fluorescent lamps are increasingly being recycled. The ACT Government has recently announced the provision of drop off collection points for lamps in order to facilitate their recycling. Some states also have similar schemes and some major retailers are also providing drop off-points