Bulb workers must be given every protection

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 May, 2010, 12:00am

The West's rush for energy-efficient light bulbs may well be helping the environment in the developed world, but it is having dire consequences for the Chinese involved in their production. Poor conditions at mines and in cost-cutting factories is exposing workers to life-threatening health risks. Mainland doctors, non-governmental groups, lawyers and courts are well aware of the problems, which are all but being forgotten by the foreign governments compelling their citizens to buy the bulbs. While China has to implement and enforce safeguards and regulations, the nations seeking rising output have to play a role in ensuring that the highest standards are maintained.

A majority of the world's energy-efficient bulbs are made in China. Production is booming as governments phase out the use of incandescent lighting. Australia, Brazil, Switzerland, Venezuela and most members of the European Union have already started the process; Britain, Italy and Russia will follow by the end of next year, Canada in 2012 and the US before 2014. Impending export bans by the EU and US of mercury, the key metal used in production, means that mines that were long ago closed are being reopened.

Overseas governments requiring the new bulbs feel better about the lower levels of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere from power plants. The boom is good for the owners of mines and factories. Authorities are obviously also happy that people who would otherwise be unemployed have jobs. But not everyone wins; while workers are grateful to have income, a sizeable number are endangering their health by improperly handling mercury.

Many have already been poisoned by the metal, a small amount of which is put into the bulbs to create the chemical reaction that creates light. Accumulation in the body can damage kidneys, lungs and the nervous system. Babies in the womb and young children are particularly threatened. Health officials warn that if such a bulb is broken, the room should be cleared for 15 minutes to lessen the danger of inhaling vapours - advice that invariably more often than not goes unheeded on the mainland in the rush to meet orders.

The Health Ministry has issued guidelines to doctors and factory and mine operators. As happens so often on the mainland, though, there is a considerable gap between rules and enforcement. It is not too much to ask that consumers bear some of the responsibility by demanding that mercury comes from environmentally sound mining operations, and light bulb factories have protective measures in place for workers. Governments and buyers have to insist on regular safety inspections to ensure high standards and environmental safeguards. The compact bulb industry promotes itself as a friend of the earth. It will be only if the workers who make them and extract the mercury for their production are protected. This requires the participation of all involved - from the mainland officials making the rules to the governments insisting on their use and the people who buy them. Only this way can the world truly benefit.