On the Wings of Mercury

Kenny Greenberg ©2007

I’ll say from the start that I consider myself an environmentally concerned resident of Planet Earth. Who in his right mind would not be? To politely rephrase a famous saying, we should not pollute the stream we drink from.

The same way we know our body benefits from exercise and healthier food we have come to see that the world at large can benefit from a better approach to how we use our resources. It is simple logic that if we want a healthier and stable environment we should try to identify and correct the subtle daily aspects of work and life that might contribute to larger scale problems. What is sometimes hard to determine is what exactly will really solve a problem. What is sometimes hard to avoid is creating new problems while trying to solve old ones.

I have been making neon for more than a quarter of a century. I was part of the new young breed of neon makers who took aim at the potential dangers of mercury. We were the first generation of neon makers to outright refuse mercury repairs. It’s interesting to note that the classic Miller text, Neon Techniques made almost no mention of mercury’s toxicity. The one mention I have so far found in Miller was that one should not stay near a working mercury diffusion pump—something I’ve never seen in a shop—because if it should break, breathing the mercury vapor would be dangerous.

The greater concern in Miller is more about keeping mercury pure so that the tube is not polluted. Ironically, that did encourage careful handling. Books and articles that were published later—including the 4th edition of Neon Techniques and the more recent Neon Engineer’s Handbook—now give greater attention to the hazards of mercury.

Despite the lack of formal information in 1980, I was nonetheless taught to frequently wash my hands and to never eat or smoke (yes, I smoked then) in the work area of the shop. We were also taught to not use a blow hose on the manifold. From early on I had a cleanup system for mercury and a sealed metal container for old electrodes and broken tubes. I had a small routed trough along the sides of my bombarding table to collect potential spills. Some of these ideas were part of the oral tradition passed down from the old-time benders. And maybe that explains why in my 26 years in the neon industry I have only been aware of one possible case of mercury poisoning.

AND THE LAW WON

I’m sure by now many readers are aware that the state of Vermont has effectively banned the production and sale of “neon” tubes containing mercury. A similar ban will go into effect by 2010 in Massachusetts and other states are eyeing similar laws. Note that I am using the word “neon” generically. Tubes that employ neon or any gas without the addition of mercury are not banned. Nonetheless this is a devastating blow to the neon industry and at the moment it seems the response from the industry has been about as loud and effective as the call of a hamster.

I feel we are in the frustrating position of being relatively small and disjointed businesses that are powerless in the face of lobbying campaigns from vastly large corporate entities. There have been many instances where, for example, the LED industry has successfully influenced local lawmakers with information that is not accurate. A primary claim has been that LEDs have far greater levels of efficiency.

At the same time the lobbyists point to the hazards of mercury as a pollutant. The sad and possibly dangerous irony is that mercury filled tubes can be by far more efficient than present LED technology in common use. The result is that greater emission of greenhouse gases comes about from powering LEDs. Note also that there is no similar ban on standard fluorescent (FL) and compact fluorescent (CFL) lighting. One of the reasons is because they are considered energy efficient. Yet there are colors of mercury-filled neon that are twice as efficient as FL. But the FL and CFL producers can more successfully reach the ears of legislators.

One assumption underlying the ban of mercury in “neon” tubes but not FL or CFL tubes is the idea that far greater amounts of mercury are used in “neon” tubes and that these amounts may be indiscriminately and unsafely dispensed or stored. And there is the belief that because mercury-filled “neon” tubes have greater amounts than their smaller counterparts that the disposal of these tubes poses a greater environmental risk. In my opinion the above assumptions do not reflect the true state of current practices and trends nor does it reflect the true life cycle of “neon” with mercury.

The majority of shops I’ve seen emphasize safety and health. Modern shops large and small take precautions to protect their workers and to address environmental concerns. Neon shops are usually fairly clean and well organized spaces. Mercury is often stored in small amounts-typically one pound (a bit more than two tablespoons) in specially insulated containers. Many shops use the mercury injection dosimeter—a product that has been available for quite some time. The injector allows reliable and limited doses to be delivered deep into the tubulation trap in 10µL increments. (Note: µ the small Greek letter “mu” represents 1/1,000,000; so a µL, or microliter equals one millionth of a liter.)

The Web site for The Northeast Waste Management Officials’ Association (www.newmoa.org) states that 250 to 600mg of mercury may be present in a tube. My own experience is that no more than two 10µL injections are needed. This would be 270mg for a tube that can be several feet in length. There are additionally a handful of manufacturers that produce electrodes with sealed mercury capsules. These deliver still smaller amounts of mercury without any external exposure.

WHAT HAPPENS TO FL SIGNS?

Let’s look at the disposal of broken or spent tubes. A good neon sign will have a useful lifespan of anywhere from 10 to 20 years. We all know that there are countless neon signs that have been around for several decades. Neon signs are a key asset for the businesses that own them and so they are not things that are readily or eagerly disposed of. Additionally, even when a business closes, if the owner is not interested in keeping the sign for nostalgic reasons, there is a hungry world of collectors who highly value these signs. Can you imagine this sign in a dumpster?Compare the number of neon signs that might go into service in a small locality over the period of a month with the number of FL and CFL lamps that are bought on a daily basis at local superstores. Compare the lifespan of neon signs with the shorter lifespan of these lamps. And compare how much more often (legal or not) the multitude of FL and CFL lamps end up in household and industrial trash. How often does one see a neon sign in the trash? Again, one of the arguments against mercury-filled “neon” is that the amount of mercury is considerably more than that of FL. But it should be clear from the above; it’s very likely that right now far less mercury from “neon” is ending up in the waste stream compared with what comes from FL and CFL.

A third assumption is the belief that signage that uses mercury cannot be tracked from manufacture to its end of life as easily as FL and CFL. I don’t see why that should be so. Signs come under the inspection rules of localities and they are certainly more distinct than generic fixtures. Programs are already in place to educate and regulate the disposal of standard mercury filled lamps. Systems already exist to allow waste to be tracked from manufacturer to end user and finally to a mercury recycler. My belief is that this is something to which the neon industry could easily adapt and plug into. But it took me quite some time to investigate if I had any available options.

I looked into the disposal systems designed for FL and CFL distributed through industrial catalogue companies. These systems have special containers with prepaid shipping to a certified mercury recycler. Unfortunately when I delved deeper into the literature from the companies that produce these systems I found very specific restrictions that appeared at least on the surface to disallow neon waste. When I contacted these companies I was either told, “No, we can’t.” or “We’re not sure.”This is not the way to dispose of lamps.

I did finally find one company that has stated they can receive waste from my “incidental breakage”. They have a special Mylar giant “ziplock” bag contained within a double cardboard box. I’m still not 100% certain if that means I can carefully cut up a non-working unit or I have to place them whole in the bag (where they may break anyway). It should be noted that an attempt must be made to recapture as much liquid mercury as possible and contain and recycle that separately. (In my mind cutting the tubes is more in keeping with the above.)

My point to all this is that, wouldn’t it make sense to simply include “neon” with mercury within an established system for disposing spent or broken lamps rather than destroying an important part of our local domestic economy? Small business is often described as a fundamental part of our nation’s growth. Yet here is a situation where small business is under walloped and not being given time or space to come up for air.

The Interstate Mercury Education & Reduction Clearinghouse (IMERC), the mercury-specific committee of NEWMOA, is trying to both legislate and educate. I’m not sure how well their information is being distributed within the community of neon manufacturers. Add to this the understandable fear of, for example, registering with IMERC (a requirement now in several Northeast states). In states where a ban has not gone into effect, shops feel that by doing the right thing they are setting themselves up to be targeted. A lot of work needs to be done and this is a challenge to our industry and the environmental industry to find better solutions.

CHOOSE YOUR POISON

There is a significant difference between the metallic mercury we use and the so-called “organic” dimethyl mercury which is a by product of coal-fired power generation plants. Dimethyl mercury is considered by far to be more dangerous than the metallic mercury used in lighting. Some 50 tons released into the air per year have been estimated by the EPA. Metallic mercury used in neon shops is not the same compound. While it is toxic and something that should not become part of the food chain, it does not pose the level of health and environmental threat compared to mercury released from power plants.

Electrodes with mercury capsules.A typical mercury injector.

It would take somewhere between 1,000 to 3,000 “neon” tubes to use up the one-pound container I mentioned earlier. It would take two to six million “neon” tubes to use one ton–no less 50 tons. More importantly, most of the mercury that is in a “neon” tube is only exposed to the air momentarily at the start of the tube’s life and at the end. As long as proper procedures are in place, miniscule trace amounts even over the course of a year are released by even the largest neon company. And so the direct risk just does not seem equal to the laws that are going into effect. I can’t help but feel that neon has become the sacrificial lamb for bigger problems that are not being as easily controlled by law. It is the equivalent of trying to conserve gas by banning lawn mowers while allowing SUVs.

It should be noted that if the proper paperwork is filed within the correct time cycles within each affected state (see NEWMOA’s Web site) it may be possible for a manufacturer to obtain a temporary but renewable exemption. One important basis for an exemption is that it can be shown that greater environmental benefit is derived by use of “neon” with mercury.

Neon is a very efficient lighting source—especially given modern electronic transformers and higher efficiency phosphors. A lot more power needs to be provided to white LEDs, for example, to achieve the same light output as white neon. And so in this instance operating the LEDs will release more mercury into the atmosphere via the power plants and consume more natural resources. This is in addition to the higher greenhouse gas emissions mentioned earlier.

Tree Hugging

The only times I’ve hugged a tree were my poor attempts to climb one. I never wore Birkenstocks but I admit I wore Earth Shoes. Hey, they were comfortable even if I looked like a duck. I do care about my health and that of future generations. One of my most memorable experiences was traveling in New Zealand for over a month. This is a place where for more than 100 years people have been environmentally aware. It is a country that generates massive amounts of power from their fortunate circumstance of readily available geothermal power. It is one of the few places in the world where I was able to drink water directly from streams during my week hiking the Milford Track.

For Vermont, nature is among its most precious resources and so I fully appreciate the attempt to preserve it. But I think all concerned lawmakers in every state should reevaluate the underlying assumptions for a mercury filled “neon” ban. Will the actual level of metallic mercury kept from the soil be as significant to the health and wellbeing of people and society as the jobs that will be lost and the companies that will go under? Is the level of human suffering that will come from this less important? Is an outright ban on hand crafted hand processed mercury tubes an appropriate response while allowing a vast proliferation of mass manufactured tubes that are essentially the same?