The European Union does some great things. Its Parliament has just voted to ban the trade in seal products – from 2010, no seal products can be placed on the EU market. This will effectively close a primary market for Canada, which continues to slaughter seals. Bad news for the Scots though. Sealskin sporrans will be illegal and the kilt industry is not too happy. Between 2009 and 2012, the EU has also directed that energy-guzzling, traditional incandescent light bulbs and inefficient halogen bulbs are to be phased out and replaced by compact energy-efficient fluorescent (CFL) bulbs. The bulbs are like miniature versions of the fluorescent strip lights common in offices and kitchens.
But this latter decision, whilst allowing EU homes to reduce electricity usage 10-15% and stopping 5 million tons of carbon dioxide a year from being pumped into the atmosphere, will have serious ramifications for Chinese workers. The new “green lightbulbs” will mostly be made in Chinese factories and mercury is a component of these fluorescent lightbulbs. The problem is twofold: fluorescent bulbs use electricity to excite mercury vapour and, of course, mercury is a toxic pollutant; and during the manufacturing process, mercury (in solid or liquid form) must be handled, contained and safely controlled.
In Chinese factories, however, workers are being poisoned by mercury on a daily basis because many of these factories are often poorly regulated. In one Chinese factory, 121 out of 123 employees had excessive mercury levels. One man’s level was 150 times the accepted standard. Mercury can accumulate in the kidneys and lungs and damage the nervous system. So toxic is mercury that the British Government cautions that if a compact fluorescent lightbulb breaks in the home, the room needs to be cleared for at least 15 minutes due to the danger of inhaling mercury vapours. I’ve read too that the quality of light emitted from CFL bulbs can trigger migraines in sufferers. And there are reports that the bulbs can trigger dizziness, loss of focus and cause problems for people with epilepsy.
Whilst CFL’s contain small amounts of mercury as vapour inside the glass tubing (about 4.0 mg per bulb), we need to be concerned that these bulbs are largely manufactured in China where workers are being poisoned and told to keep quiet about it. One worker was interviewed on condition of anonymity and said: “In tests, the mercury content in my blood and urine exceeded the standard but I was not sent to hospital because the managers said I was strong and the mercury would be decontaminated by my immune system”.
Because of the surge in foreign demand, mercury mines are being reopened in China and impacting on the environment. So here we have the demand for a “green product” using materials that are proven to be unsafe and being manufacturered by poor Chinese workers who are living in fear of mercury poisoning. All so we can save carbon emissions in the West. Doesn’t sit well with me – what about you?