Africa lights a path for Europe to ban toxic mercury in fluorescent bulbs

With African countries demanding the phasing out of fluorescent light bulbs containing mercury, it is high time for the EU to roll out its much-delayed ban of these toxic products.

A group of African countries is taking the global lead have proposed the phasing out of mercury in the most commonly used fluorescent lighting under the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

This represents a golden opportunity for Europe to seize the initiative. Although the European Union’s standards are amongst the highest in the world, EU legislation currently contains exemptions and loopholes that allow the continued marketing of certain fluorescent lights containing mercury and the exporting of a wider range of mercury bulbs outside Europe.

“Mercury in lighting is a major public health concern in Africa, where disposal and recycling facilities are in short supply. But even in Europe mercury light bulbs are a worry because they are often not disposed off properly and end up in the environment,” explains Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, a Policy Manager at the EEB and International Co-coordinator of the global Zero Mercury Working Group.

“For that reason, the EU should support the African proposal at the next Minamata Conference of the Parties meeting later this year,” she adds. “Europe should take inspiration from Africa’s example and reclaim its mantle as a global leader by urgently banning in the EU all kinds of mercury in light bulbs and avoiding double standards by prohibiting export to countries with no or less stringent regulations.”

No safe level of mercury

Government studies also suggest that, under certain conditions, toxic lamp breakage can pose an acute health risk, especially to infants or young children who linger near where the bulb broke.

If adopted, the proposed African amendment would keep 232 metric tonnes of mercury out of homes and businesses around the world, and ultimately the global environment, by 2050, according to the Clean Lighting Coalition (CLiC). This would be a boon for public health.

Eliminating fluorescent light bulbs containing mercury also has massive environmental benefits. Not only does it significantly slash mercury pollution, it also benefits the climate. Replacing these energy-guzzling lights with LED alternatives would cut global electricity demand by an estimated 3%, avoiding 3.5 gigatons of CO2 emissions.

The situation in Europe

In Europe, the use of mercury is already banned in electrical and electronic products under the EU’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive.

However, fluorescent lamps enjoy a temporary exemption from this prohibition. Although more energy-efficient and longer-lasting LED alternatives have existed for some time now, this exemption remains inexplicably in place, benefiting a small number of legacy manufacturers at the expense of public health, energy bills and the environment.

If the EU were to eliminate fluorescent lights this year, this would deliver the following benefits by 2035, according to a report commissioned by the European Commission and an independent analysis by CLASP and the Swedish Energy Agency:

  • Reduce energy consumption by over 309 terawatt-hours
  • Nearly €30 billion in net financial savings
  • Nearly 3 tonnes less toxic mercury on the EU market

Table 1. Top ten countries which exported fluorescent lamps, ranked by export value, Source: CLiC

In contrast, each year of regulatory delay brings enormous socioeconomic and environmental costs, including a loss of €5.6 billion due to energy use and an increase of 570kg in its mercury pollution burden.

Moreover, the European bans on fluorescent bulbs apply in the EU market and not to production and export by European manufacturers to other parts of the world. This effectively still allows the export to poorer and less-regulated markets. Six of the top 10 countries exporting fluorescent bulbs are in the former EU-28 (Germany, Poland, France, Italy, Hungary and the UK), according to an analysis by the Clean Lighting Coalition.

For more information:

Khaled Diab

Senior communications officer

+32 2 289 13 09

Africa lights a path for Europe to ban toxic mercury in fluorescent bulbs
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