An Issue of Disposal
Each year thousands of tons of mercury are emitted into the atmosphere, causing a global environmental issue. Mercury is naturally found in air, water, and soil in several forms and is contained in a number of products such as batteries, thermometers and barometers, electric switches and relays in equipment, lamps and some light bulbs, dental amalgam, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals (EPA, 2014). Recent estimates of annual global mercury emissions from both natural and anthropogenic sources are in the range of 5,000 to 8,000 metric tons per year. These estimates include mercury that is re-emitted (EPA, 2014). The estimated proportion of global anthropogenic mercury emissions in 2010, from different sources, was 1960 metric tons (EPA, 2014).
Mercury that is emitted to the air can travel thousands of miles in the atmosphere before it is eventually deposited back to the earth in rainfall or in dry gaseous form. The U.S. is the third largest emitter of anthropogenic mercury. Although mercury is a naturally occurring element, pollution can cause serious ramifications to the environment. Mercury is found in air, water, and soil. It exists in several forms: elemental or metallic mercury, inorganic mercury compounds, and organic mercury compounds. Once water is polluted with mercury, aquatic ecosystems may become damaged. Fish may absorb high levels of mercury which humans then eat. As well, birds that eat fish are highly susceptible to mercury poisoning. Exposure to mercury can affect the human nervous system and harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system. Mercury is such a concern that the FDA tracks food supply mercury levels specifically in seafood as small amounts can be deadly over time. (See FDA Mercury Levels)
Workers suited up for mercury cleanup at a contaminated home in Nevada, where a teen spread mercury in his home and unwittingly poisoned himself. Courtesy of USEPA Environmental-Protection-Agency
One of the largest sources of mercury is Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) are light bulbs when improperly disposed of. When carelessly disposed of, they can leak mercury into air and water. This is a dilemma with environmentalism as using energy-efficient FLs reduces demand for power, which in turn reduces the amount of coal burned by power plants and the amount of mercury emitted when coal is burned. On average, FLs contain about 5 milligrams of mercury sealed within the glass tubing.
The EPA and state agencies have recently been cracking down on improper disposal of FLs, since this is the most common way that FLs become dangerous and nine different states have banned them from landfills because of their potential hazard. Light bulbs contain approximately 5 milligrams of mercury. These agencies have imposing fines and are requiring the violating companies to provide public education services. Some corporations have begun implementing a hazardous waste collection program and manufacturers are working on reducing the amount of mercury in FLs. A few options exist to make an impact on this system from a personal level. If using FLs, proper waste is imperative at a toxic waste facility. Different bulbs are also an option.
Chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs, are a group of manufactured volatile chemical compounds that contain fluorine, chlorine, and carbon. (Medicine 2012) There are many forms of CFC including CFC-11, CFC-12, CFC-113, CFC-114, CFC-115, and various forms of Freon. CFCs are are colorless, odorless, nontoxic, nonflammable, and initially stable when emitted which is why they were not recognized as a problem or concern for many years. However, once they are emitted, they travel to the stratosphere where they break apart from the ultraviolet radiation and release chlorine. Chlorine has been observed to destroy a large amount of the earth’s ozone layer. Chlorine released from CFCs destroys ozone in catalytic reactions where 100,000 molecules of ozone can be destroyed per chlorine atom (Elkins, 1999). These emissions contribute to pollution air pollution by damaging,
…the ozone layer, a region in Earth’s upper atmosphere. The ozone layer protects Earth by absorbing much of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. When people are exposed to more ultraviolet radiation, they are more likely to develop skin cancer, eye diseases, and other illnesses (National Geographic, 2021).
The growth in CFC use took off worldwide with peak, annual sales of about a billion dollars (U.S.) and more than one million metric tons of CFCs produced (Elkins, 1993).
Although initially believed to be a safe product to use in refrigerators and aerosols, CFC’s destructive properties were realized and they were banned in the United States on December 31, 1995. Since then, only recycled and stockpiled CFCs are allowed to be used on a restricted basis. CFCs can last for more than 100 years in the stratosphere and scientists have been studying the release rate and amount of CFCs in the atmosphere. In 1993, a report found that there was a significant decline in the amount of CFCs in the atmosphere due to a combination of restrictions and awareness of the negative effects. (Elkins, 1993) Although the production of CFCs has been banned, the issue of current levels of CFCs in the atmosphere exists as well as continued use of recycled products. There are still some products that require CFCs to function due to the fact that there has not been any safe replacement like many aircraft require aircraft to be fitted with halon fire suppression systems because no safe and completely satisfactory alternative has been discovered for this application. CFCs are being replaced with other harmful chemicals like HCFC. HCFCs have a shorter life span but still, contain chlorine which makes it possible for them to destroy ozone. “The Copenhagen amendment calls for their production to be eliminated by the year 2030… In the United States, HFC-134a is used in all new domestic automobile air conditioners. For example, HFC-134a is growing rapidly in 1995 at a growth rate of about 100% per year with an atmospheric lifetime of about 12 years” (Elkins, 1993).
In response to the discovery of the hole in the ozone found over the Antarctic the Montreal Protocol was implemented. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which was ratified in 1987 in order to stop the proliferation of CFC commercial use, has been tremendously successful in reducing CFCs and NASA’s Aura satellite confirmed this success when scientists used the satellite in 2018 to measure chlorine within the Antarctic ozone hole and found the levels decreasing (Buis, 2019).Credit: NASA
Efforts to reduce CFCs have proven effective and the BBC reported that since the banning of CFCs, the earth’s ozone has continued to repair with the exceptions caused by illegal CFC use which have been halted on an ongoing basis (Gill, 2021). Illegal use is a large issue in the developing world as less damaging alternatives may not be financially feasible. Challenges to the bans on CFCs continue to occur but currently the ozone continues to heal making the larger issue of stockpiled CFCs more urgent.
Millions of dollars and much pollution occurred before a successful disposal and destruction protocols could be adopted and accepted by the industry. Presently, there are systems in place that are structured to remove CFCs from active systems and destroy them. There are also rewards programs for many companies that incentivizes turning in products that contain CFCs so they can get carbon credits and use them to keep their plants running. In California, efforts are being made to restrict use in order to reduce carbon consumption statewide to levels found in 1990. Even with recycling programs, this means that CFCs are still used. In order to truly and effectively reduce emissions, CFCs need to be destroyed and not reintroduced into the atmosphere.
From an individual standpoint avoiding contact with mercury and limiting exposure to pollution is the more effective means of maintaining health.
1. avoid consumption of potentially contaminated food; large amounts of seafood 2. avoid contact with potentially contaminated recreational waters; 3. avoid living near or working in high pollution zones 4. dispose of FLs properly 5. never break FLs or canisters containing CFCs 6. use products that do not contain CFCs
By following these simple steps one can avoid and decrease the risk of environmental health hazards as well as help improve the environment. Other countries, that lack oversight and strong environmental policies can greatly increase one’s chance of being exposed to these risks when traveling.
Ultimately, increased funding to disposal technologies is likely to produce more effective methods for disposal of both Mercury and stockpiled CFCs, but in the meantime, we must do our part to be safe and take care of the planet.
Alan Buis (2019) The Atmosphere: Tracking the Ongoing Recovery of Earth’s Ozone Hole NASA.
Elkins, James W. “Chlorofluorocarbons .” In The Chapman & Hall Encyclopedia of Environmental Science, 78–80. Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1999.
Gill, Victoria (2021) Ozone layer ‘rescued’ from CFC damage
J. W. Elkins, T. M. Thompson, T. H. Swanson. Decrease in the growth rates of atmospheric chlorofluorocarbons 11 and 12. Nature, 1993.
Medicine, National Library of. Chlorofluorocarbons . 2012. http://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/text_version/chemicals.php?id=9 (accessed 02 05, 2014).
“Mercury: Fate and Transport and Ecological Effects of Mercury.” Environmental Protection Agency. July 9, 2013. Accessed January 22, 2014. http://www.epa.gov/hg/eco.htm.National Geographic (2021) Pollution