Energy efficiency for the First World comes at a high cost for factory workers in China, with high rates of mercury poisoning being reported among employees in the plants that make compact fluorescent light bulbs.
In an effort to reign in global warming caused by excessive greenhouse gas emissions, the European Union has passed a law mandating the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs in favor of the more energy-efficient compact fluorescents by 2012. This has contributed to a huge surge in demand for the bulbs, and a corresponding upswing in manufacturing.
Unfortunately, fluorescent bulbs require mercury to start the chemical reaction that produces the light. This mercury can pose a significant health hazard; the British government advises that if a compact fluorescent bulb breaks, the room should be evacuated for 15 minutes until the mercury vapors can disperse.
Mercury is a known neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous to children and pregnant women.
According to a recent study by the Chinese health ministry, however, mercury exposure is widespread among the workers making these bulbs. At one factory in Jinzhou, 121 of 123 employees contained a dangerous body burden of mercury, with one worker carrying 150 times the government-mandated threshold. At a factory in Anyang, 35 percent of workers had suffered from mercury poisoning and the plant was dumping mercury directly into the local water supply.
Interviews conducted by the London Times turned up hundreds of cases of dangerous mercury exposure and even hospitalization, but many workers are afraid to complain for fear of losing their jobs.
"In tests, the mercury content in my blood and urine exceeded the standard, but I was not sent to hospital because the managers said I was strong and the mercury would be decontaminated by my immune system," one young female worker said.
The paper also turned up a case where 68 of 72 workers at one factory had required hospitalization for mercury poisoning.