Shedding Light on Mercury Hazards
Responsibilities Attached to Exemptions
By Barbara Carss
Canadian consumers will still be able to purchase fluorescent, metal halide and sodium vapour lamps after a pending federal regulation to restrict or outright prohibit mercury-containing products goes into effect, but product prices may be higher. Both commodity and servicing costs are likely to increase as manufacturers comply with new content limits and vendors/distributors take on new responsibilities for recycling.
The proposed regulation, which was published in the Canada Gazette in late February, is a next step in a multi-year effort that has reduced domestic mercury emissions by approximately 90% since the 1970s. These new constraints are projected to result in a 90,000-kilogram drop in the volume of mercury entering the Canadian marketplace by 2032. This should translate into an approximate 10,000-kilogram reduction in mercury to air emissions, which regulators consider a small but meaningful improvement over current levels.
“Ninety-six percent of the mercury that comes into Canada comes in from air pollution. It’s only the 4% that’s left that this regulation is dealing with, and mercury-containing products account for about 27% of that 4%, or about 1% of the total mercury,” says William McNaughton, a lawyer and National Leader of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP’s Environmental Group. “The reason why the government is addressing that 1% is twofold: 1) it is harmful; and 2) it stays in the environment for a long time.”
A 75-day public comment period on the proposed regulation expired in mid-May. The final version is slated for release in 2012, but there will be an additional transition period to give affected industries time to prepare to comply.
As proposed, the regulation would prohibit the manufacture, import and sale of most mercury-containing products with the exception of 28 products that are deemed essential and have no viable mercury-free alternatives. Since mercury emissions are a consequence of fossil fuel-fired electricity generation, potential excess emissions due to incandescent lighting’s greater energy demand have also been factored into the exemption for fluorescent lighting.
The allowable mercury content would be further restricted in 16 of the 28 products, including all lighting and cold cathode tube neon products employed in signage. This is largely in response to fluorescent lighting’s growing prominence as incandescent bulbs are phased out of the marketplace, and an expected increase of imported products that could have higher mercury content.
Proposed limits range from 150 milligrams (mg) of mercury in metal halide lamps greater than 700-watts to 3.5 mg in compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), which would set a more aggressive CFL standard than the 4 to 5-mg voluntary industry target that the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) has adopted.
Meanwhile, advocates for the sign manufacturing/distribution sector say the proposed limit of 100 mg per 48 inches (2.44 metres) of tube should be easily achievable, and they commend Environment Canada’s consultative approach in developing the regulation.
“We needed an exception that would allow the cold cathode industry to continue producing the level of intensity that is traditionally used in our industry. Environment Canada originally proposed 20 mg per 48 inches and we said that we needed at least 60 mg,” recounts Just Cole, General Manager of the Sign Association of Canada.
FRAGILITY FACTORS INTO RISK
Actual volume of mercury isn’t necessarily the most perilous characteristic of many mercury-containing products. Rather, it’s the fragile container in which the toxic substance is housed. There is little risk when lighting is intact, but environmental and green building specialists stress the critical importance of careful handling and recycling of spent lamps and tubes.
“The mercury is vaporized inside a fluorescent tube. It’s lighter than air. If the tube gets broken, the mercury is released,” explains Michael Colligan, President of Lighting Solutions, a firm that provides hazardous waste handling in addition to supply, design and installation services. “The recycling program has to target where the contamination occurs, which is broken bulbs.”
Voluntary certification programs address some concerns relating to mercury. LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (EB:O&M) has a prerequisite in the Materials & Resources category for recycling of all mercury-containing lamps, plus a one-point credit for a lighting purchasing plan that keeps overall mercury content within a range no greater than 90 picograms per lumen-hour. The Building Owners and Managers Association’s BOMA BESt environmental performance assessment and benchmarking program has no specific measure for recycling mercury-containing lamps, but it does have a minimum requirement for a survey of hazardous materials within the building, which entails reporting the presence of mercury, asbestos, PCBs and lead paint.
Property management firms are increasingly making arrangements with their lighting and/or solid waste contractors to ensure that spent bulbs and tubes are diverted from landfill. “We’ve adopted best practices for recycling of mercury-containing lamps and for purchasing into our standard policies and procedures,” reports Nada Sutic, Director of Sustainability with Bentall Kennedy (Canada) LP.
Nevertheless, bulb crushers are still commonly found in commercial and industrial properties.
“They are actually illegal in several states in the United States,” Colligan notes. “If you break one bulb, it’s not a big deal from a health perspective. If you break 10 bulbs, it’s not a big deal, but if you’re crushing 1,200 T12s and then you remove the drum-top of the crusher, you’re releasing a lot of mercury vapour. Drum-top crushers take something that’s not acutely dangerous and turn it into something that is far more hazardous for the operator. They are particularly dangerous when used to crush HID lamps, which contain significantly more mercury than fluorescent counterparts.”
EPR & ASSOCIATED COSTS ANTICIPATED
The proposed federal regulation endorses the concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs, in which vendors/suppliers collect mercury-containing products at the end of their service life and ensure they are delivered to a facility where they can be safely decommissioned and recycled. “Environment Canada recognizes that EPR programs could be an effective tool to encourage the recycling of lamps in Canada,” it states.
Although EPR is not explicitly mandated, ongoing consultation with government officials has led many industry representatives to conclude that such programs are inevitable. Suppliers will also have to affix labels in both English and French to warn of mercury content, and provide purchasers with information about recycling.
“As an industry, we’re not too worried about the labelling requirement. Companies will be allowed to design their own labels and use their own logos,” Just Cole reports. “The biggest challenge is going to be handling of burnt out lamps, which will have to be returned to the vendor for proper disposal. The cost of the lamp is going to go up and the cost of servicing a sign is going to go up. Most distributors we’ve talked to say there will have to be a lamp surcharge called an environmental fee.”
Colligan suggests other approaches might be more effective to keep spent lighting safely intact. He advocates a deposit system, which would still require consumers to pay an extra upfront charge, but would reimburse some of the fee when they returned unbroken bulbs and tubes.
“You have to put the money into the hands of the people who have the ability to take the bulb back, and you do that through a deposit program that makes it worthwhile to take it back,” he asserts.
In future, the proposed regulation provides the flexibility to reassess and prohibit any of the 28 exempted mercury-containing products if mercury-free alternatives are feasibly available, and many observers predict that LED advancements will eventually displace fluorescent, metal halide, sodium vapour and cold cathode tube technology. Indeed, the switchover is already happening in the sign industry, even though LED doesn’t yet produce the effect favoured for channel letters in exterior illuminated signage.
“Where there were 100 units of neon built 10 years ago, there are probably 40 units built today,” Cole estimates.
"LEDs are replacing neon for a lot of applications, but LEDs are little points of lights that give a dotted look and they can’t blanket an area with light. Neon is still used where a clean look is needed. As soon as LED for tubes hits the market full force or when it becomes viable for LED to replace metal halide, it will change the design of signs.”
Analysts also predict that LED technology may ultimately conquer the lighting market, but perhaps not for several more years. That might be good timing from an environmental perspective since it will allow for a more gradual and controlled replacement of existing fixtures.
“There are a lot of incumbent installations out there – about two billion sockets in North America. As we replace, we are going to have an enormous number of fluorescent tubes to deal with,” Colligan says.
FILLING IN LEASING GAPS
Dental amalgam is another mercury-containing product with potential implications for building owners/managers. The proposed new regulation counts the material used in dental fillings among the 28 exempted products that will still be allowed in the Canadian marketplace and does not stipulate a content limit. However, an earlier 2009 requirement under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act establishes best management practices for the material or alternatively compels dentists and the owners of buildings where dental facilities are located to prepare and submit pollution prevention plans if all best management practices have not been implemented.
Dental amalgam is arguably less problematic since it contains elemental mercury, which does not readily disperse into the air like the methyl mercury in fluorescent, metal halide and sodium vapour lighting and neon signs. Best management practices focus on safe storage, appropriate measures for trapping and removing dental amalgam waste from the wastewater stream, and ensuring that a certified hazardous waste handler properly transports it for disposal.
Dentists must have an ISO-certified amalgam separator or proven equivalent to meet the best management practice standard – a requirement that may be difficult for their landlords to monitor. However, this is something that should come to light and be dealt with in lease negotiations.
“Obviously it’s not always possible to devise policies and practices for every specific tenant, but there are some measures that might apply a little more specifically depending on the nature of the tenancy,” Sutic says. “Our property managers do an annual environmental risk inventory so something like that would show up there.”