Steady release of mercury into the air, soil and water poses a significant health risk. But, it appears, not for policymakers in India. Annually, a large amount of this toxic, complex metal is simply dumped into municipal landfills or released into the air from a “green” source — the millions of fluorescent lamps that are at the forefront of efforts to reduce power demand and carbon emissions.

Yearly, India's domestic production of fluorescent tube lights (FTL) and compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) involves the use of about eight tonnes of mercury, and imported CFLs, another three tonnes. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) agrees that despite the growing popularity of these lamps, little has been done to safely dispose of the toxic waste.

Higher mercury content in India

The Ministry decided to look into the issue and appointed a Task Force on Environmentally Sound Management of Mercury in the Fluorescent Lamp sector five years ago. The report of this panel is clear. The issue should not be allowed to drift, and both industry and government must take responsibility for the toxic waste element in end-of-life lamps. It is well known that when mercury turns into methyl mercury, it accumulates in fish. Human health, particularly that of foetuses, is greatly harmed when such fish is consumed. Inhalation of vapour also produces a variety of symptoms, and research on other health effects continues.

The lamp disposal problem is confirmed by the Ministry's Task Force when it says a part of the mercury from discarded units is released into the air, and the rest goes into the soil, contaminating surface and sub-soil water. The problem is acute in large cities, which absorb a large portion of about 400 million CFLs and 250 million FTLs that come to market.

There is one other sobering factor to take note of: the lamps made in India have a higher mercury content than those in the developed world, a point made by independent researchers and the Ministry's Task Force.

Under the rules, India does not specifically identify fluorescent lamps either as municipal waste, or hazardous waste. Mercury and mercury compounds are listed as a Class A substance under Schedule II of the Hazardous Waste (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2008, but when they are contained in lamps primarily used in homes and offices, they inevitably end up in municipal waste.

Unlike the more diffused problem of mercury released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, especially coal, fluorescent lamps represent a secondary source of man-made contamination. This smaller but growing channel is more manageable, compared to, say, tackling mercury from coal-fired power plants or the chlor-alkali industry.

Recycling units

Surprisingly, the MoEF, and the State governments have not really confronted the problem for long. In December 2011, the Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Jayanthi Natarajan replying to a question in the Lok Sabha, said the Ministry and the Central Pollution Control Board had written to State Governments asking them to encourage establishment of recycling units so that fused CFLs and FTLs are properly collected, the mercury recovered and recycled scientifically. It is evident that not much progress has been made, although the report of the Ministry's technical committee on which the Minister relies is now four years old.

RTI in Chennai

State governments, which have not been able to properly implement the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000 even under contractual PPP arrangements, appear clueless on how to deal with the fluorescent lamps question. The Corporation of Chennai, a civic agency handling a few thousand tonnes of waste everyday and disposing of it in two extensive dumps on the city's periphery, is one such. In reply to a Right to Information petition filed by this writer on the practices it adopts for collection, handling and disposal of fused fluorescent lamps (and batteries), the civic body responded as follows: “the said items are not falling under the category of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) and hence it is not the responsibility of the Corporation of Chennai.” Yet, the lamps go into Corporation bins everywhere.

What this exposes is governmental indifference to a significant public health issue. Despite periodic monitoring of environmental questions by the courts, the States and their Pollution Control Boards have not acted to stop the release of this neurotoxic pollutant into the atmosphere. The mercury question provides an opportunity to cities to not just address one problem, but to adopt the Municipal Solid Waste rules in their entirety. Any move to segregate waste at the level of the consumer and remove recyclable materials can build the full chain of waste handling measures. This will reduce pressure on the environment from various waste sources such as batteries, plastic, glass and metal and help in resource recovery. This is exactly what the MSW rules envisage, but India has not been able to implement them for a decade now.

In the case of fluorescent lamps, the solution lies in providing a cash incentive to consumers to hand them over to civic or authorised recycling industry workers, with the recovery paid for by the manufacturers as part of the extended producer responsibility principle.

Despite the growing popularity of energy-saving fluorescent lamps, little has been done to address the issue of

the safe disposal of the dangerous waste they generate.