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LEDs vs CFLs - Missed Opportunity by Hydro One to Limit Mercury Exposure

As a Hydro One customer, last week I received a snappy little brochure with my electric bill extolling the virtues of LEDs. Light it Right – Your whole-home guide to LED bulbs is a great source of information. Going room by room I learned about lumens vs watts and how to tailor and optimize my choices from the wide range of highly energy efficient LED lighting options available.

But, in this otherwise exemplary brochure, I was very disappointed to see among the points noted in “The LED advantage” (see above) one such advantage being “Don’t contain mercury” with no further explanatory information.

The Hydro One communications department will be well aware that it was electric utilities such as Hydro One and most electric utilities across Ontario and beyond who aggressively encouraged the adoption of mercury-containing CFLs for many years.

It is a significant oversight and missed opportunity for a utility’s outreach materials to now ignore the need to encourage proper disposal of these bulbs as hazardous waste.

CELA strongly encourages the gradual replacement of CFLs with the even more energy efficient LED technology. However, as we have been repeatedly noting, for the foreseeable future, there is a serious problem with inadequate disposal/recycling of CFLs including significant risks associated with mercury exposure when CFLs are broken in the home.

Immediate and concerted action is needed to address this important source of mercury exposure so that proper disposal occurs across the next 5 to 10 years as this technology shifts.

Even though regulatory action has reduced the mercury content of CFLs and a lot of outreach work tries to warn Canadians about risks and the need for safe disposal, lack of awareness is widespread. And, even though the amount of mercury in CFLs is a small proportion of overall mercury emissions, when CFLs are broken during shipping, handling, retailing, use, disposal and/or recycling, the resulting mercury vapour is in direct contact with people.

The neurodevelopmental risks of this direct exposure are greatest for the developing fetus and child, with lifelong consequences. Millions of CFLs continue to be sold and used across Canada. Yet, in our experience the current efforts to educate the public on the risks and protective measures are not widely effective. For many years our outreach work with parents and service providers who work with families has shown that people are often unfamiliar with the mercury risk associated with CFLs and of how to reduce exposures in the event of a broken bulb.

We have strongly encouraged Hydro One, and all local electrical utilities, to ensure that any public outreach materials and associated websites promoting LEDs also include a more responsible message about the older mercury-containing bulbs than is provided in the “Light it Right” brochure.

There are on-line locations they can tap including Health Canada - The safety of compact fluorescent lamps, my recent article for Ecoparent.ca - Mercury hazards in compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Dangers explained and what you need to know, and from the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment – What do I do if a compact fluorescent bulb (CFL) breaks?

A caveat on the above is the fact that we don’t have fully effective CFL recovery and recycling programs and they also seem to be disappearing. Vendor take-back programs come and go and can be poorly maintained, creating mercury risks for staff and customers, municipalities may or may not provide CFL drop-off facilities especially in more remote communities, and Orange Drop, run by Stewardship Ontario no longer takes CFLs although it used to do so. The best advice seems to be to contact the local municipality and find out whether they accept CFLs as hazardous waste. The worst thing to do is pitch them in your kitchen garbage can where they can break and release toxic mercury vapour to your home.

Hydro One claims that Running our business in a socially responsible way is part of Hydro One’s mission and vision

CELA believes that such social responsibility includes providing important messages about environmental safety to ensure Hydro One customers are provided with good information about responsible handling of CFL bulbs, the use and marketing of which Hydro One spent many years actively encouraging. Hydro One needs to correct the "Light it Right" brochure and expand its communications messaging in this area. And Canada needs a nation-wide action plan as sought by CPCHE and as envisioned by Liberal Darren Fisher, MP for Dartmouth – Cole Harbour in his private member’s bill that, alas, still languishes after first reading.