The Minamata Convention on Mercury, a program of the United Nations with delegates from at least 150 countries, is dedicated to improving global health by phasing out the use of mercury in manufacturing, banning new mercury mines, and limiting mercury emissions. Last month, 147 countries (out of a global total of 195) agreed to phase out florescent lighting globally and completely by 2027.
According to the appliance efficiency non-profit, CLASP, the phase out will, between 2027 and 2050:
- Avoid 2.7 gigatons of CO2 emissions,
- Eliminate 158 tons of mercury pollution, both from the light bulbs themselves and from avoided mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants,
- Save US$1.13 trillion on electricity bills.
Early fluorescent lamps were being tested by Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla in the 1890s, but it took several advances before they were ready for commercial use around the 1940s. According to the Department of Energy, by 1951 more light was being produced in the US by fluorescent lamps than by incandescent lamps. But, this always came at a cost. Fluorescent lamps work by passing an electric current through gaseous mercury, which emits ultraviolet light, which in turn is converted to visible light by the phosphors that line the fluorescent tube. When discarded (and eventually broken) the mercury would enter the environment, which is why the EPA began encouraging fluorescent lamp recycling and mercury recovery in the mid-2000s. Mercury is a neurotoxin, and symptoms of prolonged and/or acute exposures include:
- Emotional changes (such as mood swings, irritability, nervousness, excessive shyness)
- Neuromuscular changes (such as weakness, muscle atrophy, twitching)
- Poor performance on tests of mental function
So, after around 70 years as the dominant commercial light source, and 10 years of decline after the introduction of LEDs, the fluorescent lamp has joined kerosene, whale oil, and others as an historical or legacy light source.