Results of a recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Division of Environmental Health Sciences, suggest that most containers used for storage and transportation of used fluorescent lamps to recycling centers do not provide necessary levels of protection against mercury vapors emitted from broken lamps.

The study found that, of the five packages tested in the study, just one configuration—consisting of a zip-closure plastic-foil laminate bag layered between two cardboard boxes—minimized exposure levels below acceptable occupational limits, as defined by state and federal regulations and guidelines.

To protect workers who handle fluorescent lamps, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which encourages recycling of these lamps by allowing common carrier shipment to recycling facilities, instructs that packaging should be designed to protect against breakage. The rule, however, does not include specific restrictions regarding vapor release.

In 2005, the EPA added a requirement mandating that packaging be designed to prevent mercury from escaping into the environment. While fluorescent lamps aren’t included in this rule, the new study points directly to the need for stricter legislation regarding the release of mercury vapor.

“Legislation is certainly needed to specifically protect both workers and consumers from the risks of mercury vapor that escapes from broken fluorescent lamps,” said Brad J. Buscher, chairman and CEO of VaporLok Products LLC, a health and safety company headquartered in Mankato, Minn. “To mitigate potential health risks to these people, legislation and regulations should specifically limit the amount of mercury vapor that can be emitted from containers.”

University of Minnesota associate professor Lisa Brosseau, one of the authors of the study, recognized that mercury vapor concentrations could exceed occupational exposure levels when people work with or near broken bulbs, especially when multiple bulbs are stored or shipped in bulk to recycling facilities.

“Based on our measurements of mercury vapor from single broken fluorescent bulbs, we determined the need for additional research to quantify emissions from various types of packaging. The results indicate that emissions from packages not designed to contain mercury vapor represent a real health and safety concern,” Brosseau said.

The only package of those tested that kept airborne concentrations below occupational exposure limits was a cardboard box layered with a patent-pending vapor-resistant bag and second cardboard box. This packaging configuration lowered mercury vapor concentrations by 99.7 percent compared to the single layer cardboard box.