Environmental and Health Aspects of Lighting: Mercury
Most discharge lamps, including fluorescent lamps, metal halide lamps, and high pressure sodium lamps, contain Mercury, a toxic chemical. Lighting professionals need to be able to respond to questions about the direct hazards of Mercury from accidentally breaking lamps, and the potential environmental hazards of lamp operation and disposal.
We calculated the exposures that could occur from an accidental breakage of lamps. Acute poisoning appears almost impossible. Under some circumstances a sealed environment, such as a space station, could be contaminated enough to make it unhealthy for long-term occupation.
Mercury becomes a potential environmental hazard after it becomes methylated. Mercury is methylated in aquatic environments, where it may accumulate in fish, eventually rendering them toxic to people and other animals. Lighting causes Mercury to enter the environment directly from lamp disposal, and indirectly from power plant emissions. The environmental tradeoffs between incandescent and discharge lamps depend upon the amounts released by these two sources, their local concentrations, and their probabilities of being methylated. Indirect environmental effects of lighting also include the release of other heavy metals (Cadmium, Lead and Arsenic), and other air pollutants and carbon dioxide that are emitted by fossil fuel power plants. For a given light output, the level of power plant emissions depends upon the efficacy of the light source, and is thus much larger for incandescent lamps than for fluorescent or discharge lamps. As disposal and control technologies change the relative direct and indirect emissions from discharge and incandescent lamps will change.