All fluorescent, compact fluorescent and HID (high intensity discharge) lamps contain mercury. Improper recycling or disposal of these lamps could cause mercury to be released into the environment. Why is this a concern? Extensive scientific research has shown that mercury is harmful to both humans and wildlife.
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. Mercury can also cause neurological damage to unborn children. According to estimates, 85,000 U.S. women of childbearing age in a given year have been exposed to elevated methylmercury levels sufficient to affect the brain development of their babies. (Reported by the National Wildlife Federation).
Ever since the tragic results of mercury poisoning in Minamata Japan in the 1950's, extensive research has been done in the field of mercury toxicity in environmental settings. In general, it has been learned that elemental mercury that is released to the environment can be deposited into lakes, rivers, and the oceans. Here a biological process takes place where 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. This bioaccumulation causes very small amounts of mercury in lower animal forms to become concentrated in larger animals to levels where their consumption could cause elevated levels of methylmercury in humans.
Currently the standard fluorescent lamp contains approximately 20 milligrams of mercury. Since 1 gram of mercury is enough to contaminate a 2-acre pond, then it would take only 50 lamps to cause unacceptable contamination. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, estimates that over 800 million lamps are produced each year. Therefore, there is enough mercury in those lamps to contaminate 20 million acres of water.
The most common way for mercury to enter aquatic ecosystems is through vapor deposition. Mercury has a low vapor pressure and consequently whenever it is heated the liquid metal becomes a vapor air pollutant. Mercury in a fluorescent lamp is released to the environment anytime a fluorescent lamp is processed in a municipal waste incinerator. In addition, improper lamp recycling also causes mercury to be released to the environment. Most lamp recyclers in the U.S. use a crush and sieve technology. Using this method, up to 50% of the mercury in the lamp can become released to the environment (see NEMA studies). The process involves shaking broken lamp glass to remove mercury. Any mercury that has bonded to the glass will not shake off. Subsequent heating of the mercury glass will cause an uncontrolled release of mercury to the environment.
Bethlehem Lamp Recycling heats the recovered glass in an enclosed high vacuum, high heat retort where 99.9% of the mercury in the glass is captured. Consequently, recovered glass from the Bethlehem process will be mercury free and no environmental releases will occur when the glass is remelted in the glass manufacturing process.
Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), owners and operators of facilities disposing of hazardous substances may be held liable for response cost. Liability under CERCLA is broad, costly and can be retroactive. All generators may be liable for disposing of mercury containing lamps in a dumpster or local landfill. Disposal of mercury waste in an environmentally sound manner will help minimize the potential for environmental contamination and minimize the potential for liability.