With growing concern about climate change, governments around the world are looking for ways to reduce greenhouse gases and to reduce consumption of fossil fuels.
One simple solution that has gained government support is phasing out energy-inefficient light bulbs and replacing them with energy-efficient ones.
In light of this, Zimbabwe’s power utility, Zesa will distribute for free six million of the most popular bulbs that are commercially available and affordable – compact fluorescent lights (CFL).
CFL bulbs use approximately 75% less energy than incandescent light bulbs and last longer.
At first glance this seems like a good way to conserve energy and to protect our environment.
However, there are a number of serious problems associated with CFL bulbs that need to be considered and corrected.
These include mercury content, emission of UV radiation, emission of radio frequency radiation, and generation of dirty electricity.
There is the additional concern that these bulbs make some people ill. This includes those who suffer from migraines, skin problems, epilepsy, and electrical sensitivity.
Instead of promoting CFL bulbs governments should insist manufacturers produce light bulbs that are electromagnetically clean and contain non toxic chemicals.
Some of these are available but are not affordable. With a growing number of people developing electro-hypersensitivity, we have a serious emerging and newly identified health risk that is likely to get worse until regulations restricting our exposure to electromagnetic pollutants are enforced.
Also, with improper disposal of these bulbs, we are creating a mercury time bomb. Since everyone uses light bulbs and since the energy inefficient incandescent light bulbs are being phased out in many countries with the target being 2014, this is an area that requires immediate attention.
Mercury is a known neurotoxin and can be dangerous once it is released into the environment. Light bulbs contain approximately 5 milligrams of mercury (although some manufacturers are trying to reduce that amount).
Mercury is the most volatile of all of the metals and its propensity to volatilise from landfill sites is high.
Much of this mercury will end up in main water sources. Besides, mercury can be released into the environment if the bulb is accidentally broken in the home, incinerated, or disposed at a landfill site.
Interestingly, Zesa has spent $12 million for six million CFL bulbs although studies have revealed the bulbs contain mercury.
Zesa chief executive officer Josh Chifamba said this was part of a demand-management side project, and as a result, close to 250 megawatts (MW) of peak capacity relief energy would be made available daily.
Zimbabwe has an electricity shortfall of 400MW of the 2000MW required daily. The power utility intends to cover the deficit through the introduction of energy-saving legislation.
More importantly, Chifamba did not reveal where Zesa would procure the energy saving bulbs only saying this would aid consumers in lowering their bills and reduce carbon emissions, among other things.
Zesa spokesman, Fullard Gwasira conceded the bulbs carry mercury, which is detrimental to health, but said the contents were too small to cause a health scare.
He added Zesa will engage local authorities on disposal of the bulbs, so they would not cause environmental harm when disposed of.
I wonder whether Zesa has done its own research apart from just taking templates used by other African countries such as Namibia and Angola.
CFLs need to be deposited at a toxic waste facility, and very few Zimbabweans are aware of this. What is disturbing about information peddled by Zesa is its incongruency.
But proper disposal of mercury should not be a matter of chance, it should be regulated. If government is going to ban energy inefficient lights then they also need to regulate the safe disposal of the toxic alternatives.
If toxic waste disposal facilities are not available in a particular community then Zesa should accept the return of that produce for disposal or recycling.
Until that day arrives and we can use bulbs without mercury, at the very least, we should be safely disposing light bulbs that contain mercury!
Just like paint, batteries, thermostats and other household chemicals, CFL bulbs should be disposed of safely.
Zesa’s argument that emission of mercury via light bulbs is much less than the burning of coal is a red herring since we have other sources of energy the country can use! CFL bulbs also have the potential to interfere with wireless technology hence the need for government through the Environment and Natural Resources Management ministry to regulate their disposal.
What is needed is the substantial benefits of energy savings be coupled with reduction and elimination of the numerous environmental and health problems.
Serious consideration should also be given to alternative technologies such as light-emitting dioxides which are considerably more energy-efficient than the CFLs and do not have any of the adverse health and environmental effects of the present generation of CFL bulbs.
In light of Zesa’s free CFL bulbs, the Environment ministry should ask if anyone evaluated their safety, including conducting their own research and obtaining directly relevant information from the industries involved in the manufacture of these light bulbs.
Has Zesa adequately warned the public? Do they have plans to do so before the free distribution of the bulbs?
What steps are being taken to inform the public about the potential health and environmental hazards associated with these light bulbs and their safe disposal?
Has the Environment ministry worked with Zesa to set up a scheme of recycling and safe disposal and possibly environmental reuse?
What is the government doing to regulate the safe disposal or recycling of CFL bulbs?
Having said that there is no disputing that overall, fluorescent bulbs save energy and reduce pollution in general!