March 12, 2017 by Kathleen Cooper, Canadian Environmental Law Association

When I was about seven years old I recall my mother getting very upset upon breaking a thermometer.  On her knees and chasing shiny globules of mercury across the kitchen floor, she told me it was poison.  Suitably impressed I did not forget.  But, she put it in the trash unknowingly allowing the release of mercury vapour into our home until garbage day.

Over fifty years later, most Canadians do the same when a compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) gets broken, or doesn’t work anymore.  The amount of mercury is a lot less than in the old thermometers but the health risk is the same.  Even for people who know CFLs contain mercury, many throw them in the trash unaware of the need for very careful disposal.

Health Canada, like many other public agencies, has long issued warnings and disposal advice about broken CFLs (remove people and pets, open windows and close all doors, leave the room and air it out for 10 to 15 minutes, turn off the forced air heat, don’t vacuum or sweep, wear rubber gloves, use sticky tape for small particles of glass and powder, wipe surfaces with damp paper or cloth and dispose of the cloth, seal all broken pieces in a glass jar and dispose of as hazardous waste).

The reaction to such advice can be stunned silence.  Likewise, people are often surprised that mercury is in these bulbs and creates a health risk when they are broken.  Despite more than ten years of educational work on this issue, it has largely failed to get the necessary attention.

Over the same time period a marathon talkfest has occurred among federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments, and other affected stakeholders such as CFL retailers.  Reports, progress reports, and public outreach materials have documented the problem and urged a careful response.  Likewise, guidance documents have spelled out waste management strategies.  Retailers, with varying degrees of success and consistency have provided CFL take-back programs. Enterprising companies have established CFL recycling facilities.

What has not occurred is an effective or comprehensive strategy to recover the millions of CFLs sold in Canada.  Such sales are due in part to the action of Parliament in 2012 to mandate the elimination of incandescent bulbs.  Now being overtaken by newer and even more efficient LED technology, these millions of CFLs are nearing the end of their, albeit long lifespans.

Despite nearly ten years of talk and report writing there is an inconsistent and incomplete patchwork of slow and inadequate responses across Canada to the problem of CFL disposal.

Enter Canadian Federal Bill C-238, MP Daren Fisher’s proposal to establish a national strategy for CFL disposal.  Introduced during 2016 CELA was very supportive.  While private member’s bills rarely get passed this one did.  Unfortunately, it likely passed because it won’t do more than was already planned, that is, to keep the talkfest going.

During a single day of review last November, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development removed from the bill its most important aspect.

The bill had intended to establish national standards for the safe disposal of CFLs.  This provision was replaced with “the identification of practices for facilities involved in the safe disposal of such lamps….”  In other words more talking, probably more reports, needless delay, and no requirement to act.

Such CFL disposal practices are already well-studied.  Environment Canada described them in a guidance document published in 2015.  The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) has published similar guidance.  Nine years after the CCME committed to addressing this problem, the lack of action on such guidance results from a lack of political will or legal mandate to do so.

Measurable and effective action to protect the public, especially fetuses and children, from exposure to a very common source of mercury is long overdue.  There is only a small window of time to get this right – likely over the next five to ten years as these bulbs are phased out.  There is no room for further delay and inaction.


About the Author

Kathleen Cooper is a Senior Researcher at the Canadian Environmental Law Association.  She has done environmental, health, and policy research for thirty years and joined the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) in 1987.  As Senior Researcher at CELA she provides casework support to environmental litigation files and has directed several law reform campaigns.


This article was first published on CELA’s website.