The Sunday Times
By Michael Sheridan, Foshan
Hundreds of factory staff are being made ill by mercury used in bulbs destined for the West
WHEN British consumers are compelled to buy energy-efficient lightbulbs from 2012, they will save up to 5m tons of carbon dioxide a year from being pumped into the atmosphere. In China, however, a heavy environmental price is being paid for the production of “green” lightbulbs
Large numbers of Chinese workers have been poisoned by mercury, which forms part of the compact fluorescent lightbulbs. A surge in foreign demand, set off by a European Union directive making these bulbs compulsory within three years, has also led to the reopening of mercury mines that have ruined the environment.
Doctors, regulators, lawyers and courts in China – which supplies two thirds of the compact fluorescent bulbs sold in Britain – are increasingly alert to the potential impacts on public health of an industry that promotes itself as a friend of the earth but depends on highly toxic mercury.
small amount of the metal is put into each bulb to start the chemical reaction that creates light.
Mercury is recognised as a health hazard by authorities worldwide because its accumulation in the body can damage the nervous system, lungs and kidneys, [brain]
The risks are illustrated by guidance from the British government, which says that if a compact fluorescent lightbulb is broken in the home, the room should be cleared for 15 minutes because of the danger of inhaling mercury vapour.
A survey of published specialist literature and reports by state media shows hundreds of workers at Chinese-owned factories have been poisoned by mercury over the past decade.
In one case, Foshan city officials intervened to order medical tests on workers at the Nanhai Feiyang lighting factory after receiving a petition alleging dangerous conditions, according to a report in the Nanfang Daily newspaper. The tests found 68 out of 72 workers were so badly poisoned they required hospitalisation.
The potential for litigation may be greatest in the ruined mountain landscape of Guizhou province in the southwest, where mercury has been mined for centuries. The land is scarred and many of the people have left.
The government shut all the big mercury mining operations in the region in recent years in response to a fall in global mercury prices and concern over dead rivers, poisoned fields and ailing inhabitants.
the European demand for mercury had brought the miners back.