The latest advances in LED technology may have made LED lights a far preferable alternative to fluorescent lamps when it comes to energy efficient lighting, and not just due to their green nature.

While fluorescent lamps have long abetted the widespread implementation of energy efficient illumination, the products pose a potential threat to the environment and human health as a result of their mercury content.

Mercury lamps are currently the single largest product type within Australia that contain the silvery metal element, encompassing the various types of fluorescent lamps that are such a common sight in homes and offices around Australia as well as the high intensity lamps that are used to illuminate public roads and sports arenas.

These types of lamps require modest amounts of elemental mercury in order to function, with the amount of mercury contained increasing in direct proportion to the power usage level.

Compact fluorescent lamps, which are widely employed in homes around Australia, are permitted to contain a maximum of five milligrams of mercury per bulb, while the linear fluorescent tubes that are commonly installed in commercial and office properties can hold no more than 15 milligrams.

The high intensity discharge lamps (HID) which offer powerful illumination that makes them well suited to use as street lamps and for lighting of sports arenas, contain the highest amounts of mercury at between 50 and 1,000 milligrams.

The mercury contained by these products poses a potential threat to both the environment and human health, given that the substance is a potent neurotoxin that can have a damaging impact on the health of living organisms following long-term exposure.

The products can nonetheless be safely handled and processed by means of recycling measures, and even in the absence of recycling, generally result in the release of less mercury into the environment than standard incandescent light bulbs.

This is because the manufacturing process for fluorescent lamps is far less energy-intensive – requiring around just 20 per cent of the electricity needed to make standard light bulbs, and thus reducing the amount of mercury-emitting coal burning required to power production.

Recycling of fluorescent lights should nonetheless be further encouraged in order reduce the environmental and health perils that can arise from haphazard mercury disposal.

According to figures from the Australian Lighting Council, around 95 per cent of mercury-containing lamps are send to landfills instead of being properly recycled, leading to contamination of the broader environment.

Initiatives such as FluoroCycle seek to reduce the amount of mercury that hits landfills by increasing the rate of lamp recycling throughout the country through a voluntary product stewardship scheme that confers participants with public recognition.

Concerns over the damaging effects of mercury contamination have led some to go even further, and call for the outright ban of products containing the substance.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury, which was passed into international law in October 2013, seeks to drastically reduce the release of mercury into the environment by a range of measures, including the phasing out of certain mercury-containing lamps, including compact fluorescent lamps, and the mercury in cold cathode fluorescent lamps and external cathode fluorescent lamps.

While the Australian government has joined 138 other countries in adopting and signing the convention, it has yet to ratify it, which would make its provisions legally binding.

The phasing out of fluorescent lights may appear to be a drastic measure, however, given their widespread usage in modern build environments and the efficiency gains they’ve achieved compared to traditional incandescent lamps.

LED bulbs, which are devoid of mercury content, are fast emerging as the preferable alternative to fluorescent lamps when it comes to energy efficient lighting as a result of rapid technological advances.

While LED lamps continue to cost significantly more at the store than fluorescent lights, their enhanced energy savings and greater lifespan already make them a more economical option.

LED bulbs are estimated to consume only 30 per cent the energy used by fluorescent lighting as a result of their reduced heat generation.

The projected lifespan of LED bulbs is also around five times greater than that of CFLs, which are estimated to be approximately 50,000 hours and 10,000 hours respectively. This leads to lower cumulative bulb costs as well as far less materials usage.

According to data from Sustainability Australia, LED beats mains voltage CFL in terms of power costs when it comes to 12-volt downlights across a range of light output levels, from 230 lumens to 750 lumens.

Fluorescent Lighting

LEDs had previously been hampered by the narrow, distilled beams of light they produce, making them ill-suited to the standard lighting requirements of indoor environments.

This issue can be easily solved, however, by either clustering the devices to provide more light or by installing diffusion lenses to spread the light across a greater area.

LEDs are also free of many of the problems associated with fluorescent lights that can make the usage of later inconvenient or irksome. These include inability to generate strong directional light, impeded performance at higher or lower temperatures, difficulties dimming illumination levels, and the production of an incessant humming noise.