Fact Sheet: Managing, Disposing Of Fluorescent Light Tubes Containing Mercury

Mercury is found in fluorescent, mercury vapor, metal halide, high-pressure sodium vapor and neon lamps. These lamps are used both indoors and outdoors in heat lamps, photography, photochemistry, water purification and street lighting. Lamps containing mercury become hazardous to human health and the environment if they are broken in a manner that allows the mercury to escape into the environment.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is the federal regulation governing hazardous waste. RCRA regulations prohibit the disposal of waste lamps and light bulbs in sanitary landfills if they contain levels of heavy metals (i.e., mercury) that exceed hazardous waste limits. Companies should check with their associated state agency relating to hazardous waste disposal since each state may have different or more stringent regulations. The disposal of mercury-containing hazardous waste is regulated in 40 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) Part 261 under the heading "Identification and Listing of Hazardous Wastes". Other information on how to dispose of mercury lamps under the Universal Waste Rule is found in 40 CFR Part 273.

Although fluorescent lighting contains mercury, it is still the preferred choice since it uses less energy than other types of lighting. Efforts should be made, however, to use fluorescent bulbs that contain low amounts of mercury.

Mercury is one of the persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals identified as a priority. Mercury cycles in the environment as a result of both natural and human activities. Once it is released into the environment mercury will remain there indefinitely. One of the reasons that mercury has been listed as a PBT is that some forms of mercury can bioaccumulate in the flesh of certain fish, which could then be ingested by humans. Mercury also is toxic to humans and can severely damage the brain, kidneys, developing fetuses or even cause death.

When disposing of lamps, it is recommended that they be stored in containers that prevent them from breaking. Containers include their original boxes or in boxes supplied by lamp recyclers. When removing the lamps, take extreme caution to avoid breakage. 

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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