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Your energy-saver bulb could be killing you slowly

By Vision Reporter

Added 1st June 2008 03:00 AM

WITH signs of global warming being witnessed, energy efficiency and carbon emissions have emerged as the most important areas that need to be addressed to slow down environmental destruction.

WITH signs of global warming being witnessed, energy efficiency and carbon emissions have emerged as the most important areas that need to be addressed to slow down environmental destruction.

By Frederick Womakuyu

WITH signs of global warming being witnessed, energy efficiency and carbon emissions have emerged as the most important areas that need to be addressed to slow down environmental destruction.

This has led to the increased use of the Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL).
However, experts and environmental activists question the wisdom in the mass shift to the use of CFLs without considering their dependence on mercury.

Mercury is a chemical element used in the manufacture of industrial chemicals or for electrical and electronic applications. It is also used in thermometers, especially those which measure high temperatures.

In the past two years, Uganda has seen the promotion of CFLs through campaigns involving the Government, NGOs and companies in the energy industry.

However, Eng. Jimmy Ogwal, a lecturer in the Faculty of Technology at Makerere University, says those pushing for the use of the energy-saver bulbs are not telling the consumers about their dangers.

Ogwal says each CFL light contains a neurotoxin substance, which is lethal even in very small amounts and can travel across a vast distance.

Health risks
Mercury and most of its compounds are toxic. It can be inhaled and absorbed through the skin and mucous membranes, causing poisoning.

Studies have shown effects such as tremors, impaired cognitive skills and sleep disturbance in people with chronic exposure to mercury vapour.

Other effects include chest pain, cough, impairment of pulmonary function and interstitial pneumonitis. The effects also include serious central nervous system effects like psychotic reactions characterised by delirium, hallucinations and suicidal tendencies.

Mercury exposure can also lead to loss of memory, excitability, fatigue, excessive shyness, insomnia and depression. With continuing exposure, one may develop a tremor, which may escalate to violent muscular spasms.

Dr. Halima Ahamed, an occupational hazard and risk physiotherapist at Ahamadiya Hospital in Mbale, says: “Pregnant women and women of childbearing age should particularly avoid exposure to mercury because it can cause birth defects and complications in young children.”

She adds that about 8% of women of childbearing age have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood stream.

Dr. Moses Kyeyune, a chemistry lecturer at Makerere University, says a standard CFL contains about 0.5 milligrams of mercury, which can get released when it is broken.

Hazard not recognised Although the problem that mercury in CFLs poses in Uganda is serious, it has not been recognised.

Dr. Kepha Nantulya, an environmentalist with Environmental Consultancy Services International, says: “There is almost no awareness or recognition of household hazardous waste, particularly mercury, among citizens.”

At a recent environment conference in Mukono, environmentalists discussed the dangers of using fluorescent tubes and CFL bulbs, especially that they stop working and need to be replaced regularly.

They also observed that a lot of sub-standard brands were being sold in the country. They also observed that used CFLs are disposed of in the general dustbins, where they are broken thus exposing people to mercury.

Way forward
Hassan Nabyona, an engineer at Makerere University, says Uganda’s lighting industry uses about 15 tonnes of mercury every year.

He added that a total switch to CFL and fluorescent tubes from the current 10% would mean an increase to 150 tonnes annually.

“An argument being pitched by Umeme and those asking for a complete switch to using CFLs is that energy-efficient lights would reduce the loss of power that other bulbs cause,” adds Nabyona.
The environmentalists called for an alternative that does not pose a threat to the environment and the health of the users.

Alice Nasuna, the project officer of Nature World, says: “There are alternatives that are not only more efficient than CFL, but also safer and long lasting and can cater for the mass demand.” These include light emitting diodes (LED).

Nabyona says light emitting diodes are an efficient non-mercury lighting option. “These are tiny devices made of semi-conductors such as silicon that have varying abilities to conduct electricity.”

Nabyona says LED bulbs are more efficient and last longer than CFL. For example, a six-watt LED bulb produces more light and can last up to 50,000 more hours than an average CFL bulb.

Advantages of using the LED
LEDs produce more light per watt than incandescent bulbs. This is useful in battery-powered or energy-saving devices.

LEDs can emit light of a desired colour without the use of colour filters that traditional lighting methods require.
Ogwal says this makes them more efficient.

The solid package of a LED can be designed to focus its light whereas incandescent and fluorescent sources often require an external reflector to collect light and direct it in a usable manner.

When used in applications where dimming is required, LEDs do not change their colour tint when the current passing through them is lowered, unlike incandescent lamps which turn yellow.

LEDs are ideal for use in applications that are subject to cycling, unlike fluorescent lamps that burn quickly when cycled frequently.

LEDs have a long life span. Scientists say they last between 100,000 and 1,000,000 hours. “Where as fluorescent tubes are typically rated at about 10,000 hours and incandescent light bulbs at between 1,000 and 2,000 hours.” Ogwal says.

Facts about Mercury/b>
It can be inhaled and absorbed through the skin and mucous membranes.

It can cause disorders of the central nervous system.

A standard CFL contains about 0.5 milligrammes of mercury.

About 8% of women of childbearing age have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood stream.

The lighting industry uses about 15 tonnes of mercury every year.

Your energy-saver bulb could be killing you slowly

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