Monday, May 4, 2009

'Green' lightbulbs poison workers

'Green' lightbulbs poison workers presents a screwball slanted view of a problem arising from the rising use of compact fluorescent lights. It isn't widely known but these lights contain a small amount of mercury to aid the fluorescing process, and of course mercury is a well known poisonous metal that causes damage to the nervous system, lungs, kidneys and more. It poses a particular threat to babies in the womb and young children. The problem is that this article spins it as a problem with the lightbulbs, when the real problem is lax environmental regulations in some countries.

The amount of mercury in each compact fluorescent lightbulb is very small. There is a fearism scare going around about the exposure risk from breaking individual CFL bulbs, but that risk is overhyped. However at the other end of the process, mercury has to be mined and processed in factories in industrial quantities. This means exposing workers to risky work where they may be exposed to mercury. Fortunately in advanced countries there are worker protection and hazardous materials laws that require corporations to maintain safety, keeping workers in advanced countries safe.

Globalism however is involved. Globalism being the process that's undermining industrial production in the advanced countries, and causing industrial production to move to places like India and China where the workforce can be bought for less cost, and where laws are weak or nonexistent. In this case compact fluorescent lights are being built in China, causing a rise in mercury mining in China. Because China has lax environmental laws "hundreds of employees have found dangerously high levels of mercury in their bodies and many have required hospital treatment, according to interviews with workers, doctors and local health officials in the cities of Foshan and Guangzhou.... In one case, Foshan city officials intervened to order medical tests on workers at the Nanhai Feiyang lighting factory after receiving a petition alleging dangerous conditions...The tests found 68 out of 72 workers were so badly poisoned they required hospitalisation."

The article describes "medieval" mining conditions with miners lacking any protection gear, and working in toxic dust and vapours. However cinnabar mining has occurred in China for nearly 1000 years and the article has this quote: “Our forefathers had been mining for mercury since the Ming Dynasty [1368-1644] and in olden days there was no pollution from such small mines,” said a 72-year-old farmer, named Shen. “But in modern times thousands of miners came to our land, dug it out and poured chemicals to wash away the waste. Our water buffaloes grew stunted from drinking the water and our crops turned grey. Our people fell sick and didn’t live long. Anybody who could do has left.” Indicating that historically these people mined cinnabar in small quantities without problem, but the modern era has them mining it at a larger scale resulting in medical problems.

Let's take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Is this a problem of the light bulbs? The referenced article states the CFL's are the problem. Are they? Or is the real problem lax environmental regulations?

Clearly mercury is a known problem material that causes known health problems. It's not like a situation of "I didn't know it would cause that problem" because everybody clearly knows that mercury exposure causes health problems. Therefore if mercury is to be used it must be used safely.

The principle here is to treat materials with the care required to use those materials without negative side effects. One way is to simply not use the material but that's not always an option. So if you do have to use a given material then it must always be used safely.

The Chinese are violating this principle by not applying known best practices to address known problems. But that's not the extent of the diagnosis. Also at issue is the use of mercury in the first place. The best way to mitigate mercury poisoning is by not mining the mercury in the first place. That mercury is perfectly fine where it is, and if left in the ground does not cause problems. The problem comes when it's dug up, refined, and put into use among human beings.

This is not a purely local concern to a few people in a remote part of China. Mercury is among a group of pollutants called persistent bioaccumulative toxins or PBTs. These pollutants "persist" in the environment, meaning that they do not break down or go away. Mercury cannot be destroyed, it cannot be combusted, and it does not degrade. Mercury also "bioacccumulates" in the environment, meaning it builds up in the food chain over time. Because mercury bioaccumulates the mercury released in China will eventually spread elsewhere as animals eat other animals spreading the contents of each others bodies throughout the environment. (Biomagnification of Pops and Mercury in Canadian Freshwater Subsistence Fisheries and Food Webs, Bioconcentration, Bioaccumulation, and Biomagnification in Puget Sound Biota: Assessing the Ecological Risk of Chemical Contaminants in Puget Sound., THE GREAT LAKES TODAY: CONCERNS)

Algae eat up mercury in Chinese lake outlines research into algae blooms in China’s largest natural lake, Lake Baiyangdian. The lake is an important source of fish for the local population and is also heavily poisoned with arsenic and mercury. Algae blooms are resulting from the pollution and are mitigating the arsenic and mercury poisoning. However I can't imagine that is a complete solution, because of bioaccumulation.

zeromercury.org is looking into the mercury problem on a global scale with several projects to educate locals and mitigate mercury problems.

Mercury-free compact fluorescent bulbs? has some interesting answers. First, there are some improvements to reduce mercury use in fluorescent bulbs. Second, LED bulbs do not have mercury. Third, even if you use existing mercury-containing CFL bulbs there is a net decrease in mercury release into the environment. That's because fossil fuels like coal contain many poisons, including mercury, and that decreasing electricity use causes a decrease in coal being burned causing a decrease in the release of these poisons from burning coal.

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