Green Extremes Germany's Failing Environmental Projects

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Part 4: Light


Mercury is a dangerous substance. It evaporates at room temperature. Even small amounts can damage the liver, lungs and brain. Paracelsus, the famous physician, inadvertently killed himself with mercury. Since then, doctors have advised against inhaling it.

This makes the renaissance of the toxic heavy metal in our homes all the more astonishing. Like all good Europeans, we are in the process of replacing our old light bulbs with modern energy-saving light bulbs. This is what the European Commission has decreed. The fact that each of these new light bulbs contains up to five milligrams of mercury is seen as a necessary evil, because they consume less electricity than conventional light bulbs.

We're having trouble saying goodbye to the old light bulbs, which we liked. They came on immediately when we flipped the switch, which is something our new light bulbs can't do. And you can't drop them onto the floor either, because if you do the environmentally friendly light bulb becomes an eco-killer.

"Inhaled mercury enters the brain through the bloodstream," says Gary Zörner of the Laboratory for Chemical Analysis in Delmenhorst in northern Germany. "And every bit of mercury makes us a little more stupid. It can lead to total derangement."

Scientists with the German Federal Environment Agency have done tests to determine how dangerous energy-saving light bulbs are. They broke bulbs from the product line of a European brand-name manufacturer. Then they measured the concentration of toxic materials in the air of the room, once after five minutes and a second time after five hours.

All readings were well above permissible levels. In some cases, the mercury level was 20 times as high as the benchmark value. Even after five hours, there was still so much mercury in the air that it would have endangered the health of pregnant women, young children and sensitive individuals.

Because of the mercury, throwing broken energy-saving light bulbs into the ordinary trash is of course prohibited. A waste disposal company from Nuremberg in southern Germany has invented a machine that carefully cuts apart each light bulb and sucks out the fluorescent material and mercury. The mixture is then packed into airtight bags and filled into blue, 300-kilogram barrels. The barrels are loaded onto a truck and taken to a former salt mine in the Harz Mountains of central Germany. Thus, the energy-saving light bulb ends up in an underground waste depot, where it will remain forever as contaminated waste.

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