The New Iron-fisted Approach to Mercury

California's tougher mercury-disposal restrictions are opening the way for innovation in mercury containment and transport

The California Department of Toxic Substances (DTSC) began enforcing Universal Waste management rules for all waste generators effective Feb. 9, 2006. All businesses and households are now required to properly dispose of batteries and mercury-containing lamps and devices at a certified recycling facility. This is being supported by increased enforcement by state and county environmental personnel. Disposing of even one spent fluorescent lamp in the regular municipal waste supply could result in costly penalties, including up to a $25,000 fine per day and criminal prosecution. With stricter regulations in place, many California businesses, as well as non-California-based businesses with facilities in-state are now scrambling to find a viable, cost-effective solution to compliance.

In time, it is expected that more states will follow California's lead by strengthening their own statewide regulations, much like what occurred in New York State last year. In anticipation of the impact California regulation will have on other states, businesses with operations in multiple states that wish to standardize their recycling processes are looking for nationwide solutions.

Human exposure to mercury through fish consumption has been well documented in recent years. Mercury can cause numerous severe health effects and even lead to mercury poisoning, known as Minamata disease, so-called after a large mercury-poisoning outbreak in Minamata, Japan, that was caused by excessive pollution by a petrochemical producer. Although mercury poisoning only occurs in extreme cases, minimal exposure to mercury vapor can cause neurological and kidney damage, numbness in limbs, blindness, an inability to speak, brain damage, and damage to unborn fetuses.

A 1997 study done by faculty researchers at the University of Calgary determined the medical effects of mercury vapor on brain tissue. Researchers concluded that mercury vapor inhalation can slow and retard brain growth, caused by molecular lesions in brain protein metabolism. This kind of altered cell structure is similar to that detected in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

But many are still unaware of where these products are used and the resulting potential for human exposure. Common products that use mercury include medical and electrical equipment devices, such as thermometers, blood pressure cuffs and thermostats, which are generally well known. However, most people are unaware that common lighting fixtures contain lamps that use mercury or mercury phosphate powder as a critical component. Examples include fluorescent lamps, neon, and high-intensity discharge (used for street and automobile lamps). Given the fragile nature of these products, there are significant risks associated with exposure to broken bulbs in the workplace, as well as at home if the products are not handled carefully. Improperly discarded lamps release four tons of mercury per year, according to a study by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

The State of California encourages and, in some cases, requires the use of mercury-containing fluorescent lamps. Fluorescents are widely used as an alternative to incandescent lamps because they are three to four times more energy-efficient and last up to ten times longer. While fluorescent lamps are not the only form of energy-efficient lighting, they are certainly the most popular, since they can be used easily in standard light fixtures. California alone discards approximately 75 million fluorescent lamps annually, yet currently; only about 21 percent are recycled, a fact that prompted the recent tightening of regulations in the state. While seemingly harmless, one broken lamp in a small office can exceed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) eight-hour mercury personal exposure limit. The California limit is one fourth that of the Federal (OSHA) regulation, with an additional instantaneous maximum exposure limit also in place.

On a national level, about 700 million fluorescent lamps are purchased in the United States each year, and reported recycling rates are similar throughout the country.

To ensure OSHA compliance, any breakage would require the area to be cleared and properly ventilated for at least eight hours, a costly mishap for any company. Broken lamps should be placed inside a vapor-proof container. Simply throwing spent or broken lamps into the garbage is toxic to humans, the environment, and wildlife.

Many companies specialize in the recycling of fluorescent lamps. Transporting spent bulbs is a major concern because of their fragile nature. One company, Mercury Waste Solutions Inc., has devised a containment system that has been tested and proven effective in meeting federal Universal Waste regulations and OSHA standards for containment of mercury from broken lamps during storage and shipment.

The LampTracker® MercuryVaporLok™ system is designed on a "box in a bag in a box" structure with a resealable zip foil bag that holds in mercury vapor, even if the lamps break. Users place spent lamps into an inner box, which is surrounded by a foil bag, which is surrounded again by an outer box to further protect the lamps during storage and shipping.

Other containment systems allow batteries, mercury containing equipment and devices, computers and CRTs, lighting ballasts, and dental amalgams to be recycled as well.

As part of the containment system, recyclers receive certification of recycling, and they are able to track their waste until it arrives at a recycling or disposal facility.

While Americans have successfully lowered their exposure to bio-toxins such as lead, pesticides, and tobacco over the past few years, the risks of mercury exposure are just coming to public attention. Precautions need to be taken to reduce exposure to mercury vapor, especially when employee and customer health is at risk.

While the state of California is one of the first to end exemptions, more states may soon follow. Given the great risk associated with mercury waste, retail, commercial, and industrial companies need to take extra precaution to ensure the safety of their employees and customers. Business owners should contact their state environmental offices for state-issued regulations.

Energy efficient lamps contribute to a cleaner environment, but they must be managed properly. With stricter regulations being implemented, there is no reason for an organization to put itself at risk.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

James J. Hattler, is president and COO of Mercury Waste Solutions Inc. He has been involved in the hazardous waste business since 1974. He spent 26 years at Laidlaw Environmental Services/Safety-Kleen where he was responsible for business development strategy. He holds an AAS in Chemical Technology from Erie Community College. He can be reached at (803) 783-7443.

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