by Danielle G. Lacsamana

Having adequate lighting is essential for every Filipino. A source of light, especially at night, increases security and protection, particularly for women, children, and vulnerable members of the family. Lighting also extends social and economic activities in the community. It is, therefore, important that lighting devices be safe and not cause harm to public health and the environment.

Sadly, toxic lamps containing mercury, a potent neurotoxin, are still being used and readily available in the local market. Mercury can be found in general lighting devices such as tubular fluorescent and compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). It is also present in common commercial and industrial devices such as cold cathode fluorescent lamps and external electrode fluorescent lamps.

In a recent market survey conducted by the non-profit Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology, CREST found old and new stocks of mercury lamps still being sold in hardware stores, shopping malls, and even online retail platforms.

Mercury is a very toxic element that bioaccumulates when it enters the food chain. The toxin is passed from one creature to another and grows in concentration as it moves through the food chain. Hence there is no “safe” level of mercury in the environment. A single broken CFL thrown into the environment has enough mercury to contaminate 30,000 liters of water, making it unsafe for drinking.

Mercury exposure can have serious health effects including neurological damage, reproductive system damage, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified mercury as one of the top ten chemicals that cause major public health concerns.

Indiscriminate dumping of busted mercury lamps persists. Just recently, members of the public network EcoWaste Coalition discovered dumped abandoned fluorescent lamps along a major road in Quezon City. The group called the attention of the city government to enforce its local ordinances on the safe disposal of lamps containing mercury.

The importation, distribution, and use of mercury are controlled under Philippine laws. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Administrative Order 2019-20, titled “Revised Chemical Control Order on Mercury and Mercury-compounds,” sets the schedule for the phase-out of different mercury-containing devices, with fluorescent and other mercury lamps identified to be phased out by 2022.

Advancements in LED lighting technology have already made fluorescent and other mercury lamps obsolete. LED lighting is more energy-efficient, has a longer lifespan, is safer, and is already cost-competitive. The management and disposal of LED lighting are safer since these devices do not contain mercury.

Promotion of CFLs

The Philippines was the first country in Asia to phase out less energy-efficient incandescent lighting in 2010. As part of the transition, the Philippine government loaned an amount of $31 million from the Asian Development Bank in 2009 to promote the use of compact fluorescent lamps in the country. The Philippine government, through the Department of Energy, used the loaned amount to distribute 8.6 million units of CFLs to various residential and commercial consumers. At least 40 government-owned buildings were also retrofitted to use fluorescent lamps for lighting.

The DENR identified that by 2018, there were already 588.5 million units of double-end fluorescent and 147 million units of CFLs used in the country. This translates to 25.5 tons of mercury present in residential homes, schools, and establishments.

In the quest to eliminate less efficient incandescent lighting, the Philippine government and the ADB failed to foresee and mitigate the potential impacts of the replacement technology. The collection, management, and disposal of CFLs are very problematic due to its mercury content. There are only a few recycling facilities in the country that can process post-consumed mercury-containing devices. Most fluorescent lamps are thrown into the environment or end up in dumpsites and landfills.

Global push to eliminate mercury use

One hundred thirty-nine nations, including the Philippines, are party to the Minamata Convention that aims to control the anthropogenic release of mercury throughout its lifecycle. Entered into force in 2013, the Convention has been instrumental in banning new mercury mines and in phasing down and phasing out many mercury-containing devices.

During the last Minamata Convention held in Indonesia on March 2022, parties to the Convention set the phase-out for the production, distribution, and sale of CFLs with integrated ballast for general lighting by 2025. The phase-out schedule for the linear fluorescent is to be tackled this year.

In a report published by the global network Clean Lighting Coalition (CLiC), the global elimination of fluorescent lamps and transition to mercury-free LED lighting will result in an avoidance of 3.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2035.

The Philippine target of 2022 is actually ahead of Minamata Convention’s timetable, which is a win for our communities and environment. LED is already sold in the market at very competitive prices compared to mercury lamps. According to CLiC, phasing out the exportation and sale of fluorescent will result in the Philippines saving electricity up to 70.16 terawatt-hours and financial savings equivalent to $12.6 billion by 2050.

The Philippine government should start to clamp down on the importation, sale, and distribution of CFLs and other fluorescent lamps in the market in compliance with the Revised Chemical Control Order on Mercury.

Malls and retailers should now pull out fluorescent lamps from their shelves and inventories. Home and building owners as well as commercial centers should start shifting to LED lighting and replacing existing fluorescent lamps.

The DENR and DOE, in turn, must partner with local governments and recyclers to set up community collection centers where residents can drop off busted CFLs and other fluorescent lamps. This should be followed by a massive information campaign to inform consumers about safe handling and disposal of these products. Consumers should be discouraged in just throwing mercury lamps in their trash bins as this practice can easily harm their families, our frontline waste workers and the environment.

The above article was published in Rappler on January 26, 2023, 13:29 PHT.

Photo by Rappler