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Low-Energy Light Bulbs

Volume 471: debated on Thursday 31 January 2008

1. What assessment his Department has made of local authority arrangements for the disposal of low-energy light bulbs. (178855)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is responsible for approving facilities for the disposal of electrical equipment, including low-energy light bulbs. No assessment has been made.

I thank the Minister for that answer. In my council area, half the waste centres have no collection point for bulbs, retailers do not take them and the council advice is to stick them in the bin. Is that not the real picture nationwide? Can the Minister enlighten us further?

I can certainly enlighten the hon. Gentleman. That is not the picture with which I am familiar. I took the trouble to inquire about local facilities for his constituents. I understand that Merseyside waste disposal authority has 14 designated collection points, five of which have separate collections, and that Sefton has two collection points, of which one, at Sefton Meadows, is separate. I rang Sefton Meadows, and the staff there performed well; they were able to answer my question about how to dispose of a low-energy light bulb properly.

More information needs to be given to the public. That is the duty of local authorities, all of which have sites where such light bulbs can be taken, and of retailers, who have a responsibility when selling them to say where they can be disposed of. A few retailers will take them back.

A constituent has raised an issue with me about his four-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, who suffers from eczema. She suffers great discomfort under standard low-energy bulbs—he cites as examples those in Boots and Mothercare— but when she is under standard fluorescent lighting or near household low-energy bulbs, she does not suffer. Can my hon. Friend throw any light on that problem for my constituents?

That certainly must be a serious problem for a child with eczema. Since the phase-out of domestic high-energy light bulbs was announced and has become better known, we have received anecdotal evidence that some people with certain skin conditions may be affected by low-energy bulbs. Working with the Department of Health, we are looking seriously at the matter. I have agreed a meeting with Lupus UK, and if others wish to join us at that meeting, I would be pleased to see them. There is a difference between domestic lighting and some other forms of fluorescent lighting still used in shops and offices. Domestic lighting has improved so much that we anticipate that the problem will be overcome.

Is the Minister aware that if one accidentally breaks a low-energy light bulb, the dust inside is mercury? Inhaling mercury can be very dangerous. In the Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer mentioned additional funds being made available to encourage people to make their homes energy-efficient. Will that budget extend to clear guidance and better packaging to ensure that such bulbs are not broken, and clear instructions about what to do if they are?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because that issue has been mentioned a lot in the press, and we need to make it clear what the problem is. Low-energy bulbs contain about 5 mg of mercury now, compared with 100 mg when they first came out. The amount is constantly being reduced, and low-mercury bulbs are now available. If a bulb should be broken—although the chances of one breaking are extremely low, lower than for the old-fashioned incandescent bulbs—

If it were to be dropped it might not break, but if it did, the amount of mercury in a new bulb is perhaps enough to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. However, mercury is dangerous and care must therefore be taken. The simple thing to do is what any sensible person would do with a dangerous chemical: open the window, leave the room for 10 to 15 minutes and then sweep up the broken bulb, seal it in a bag and dispose of it in the way that I described. However, people should not be nervous of the bulbs; no mercury escapes when they are in use.