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The Efficiency-Safety Trade Off In Mercury Vapor Lamps

written by: Ricky • edited by: Lamar Stonecypher • updated: 2/25/2010

Though mercury lamps are an excellent source of light, do you know if they are really safe for your health? Just read on to find out more inside this interesting article.

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    Mercury vapor lamps are used widely for lightining purposes although their use is certainly decreasing, not that much related to performance issues but mainly due to the hazards associated with them, as we shall see later in this article. The main reason for their use is primarily owing to the fact that the mercury lamps are not time barred i.e. they do not have a definite life span. They keep on giving luminescence, but when the glow from these bulbs starts diminishing, it is a signal that the time has indeed come to replace them. Mercury vapor lamps, however, may not be good for your health. There is a considered view that these lamps have the potential to sap out the energy from us if we get exposed to it on a regular basis.

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    The Trade Off

    Does it mean that the potential of mercury vapor lamps to cause debilitating effects on health could turn out to be its stumbling block in its wide scale usage? To set things in perspective, they indeed are filled with mercury and it does not simply disintegrate but continues to have a vestigial presence. Discarded bulbs which have lost their glow may be buried deep inside the surface soil and the mercury could continue to leech into the soil as well as adjoining water bodies, affecting the health of the human beings who are dependent on the soil for produce or drinking water.

    It also needs to be underlined that mercury is not the only evil in the mercury filled lamps, but other chemicals present in the bulbs have the potential to cause sufficient damage to health.

    Since the light emitted by a mercury-vapor light has a blue tone, this needs to be accounted for, or color- corrected as it is called. This rectification is done by applying phosphor on the inner surface of the bulb. Most modern mercury vapor lamps have this rectification done in them. If you remember the acronym VIBGYOR, you will see that since mercury light is more towards the blue end of this spectrum break up, it lacks in the red end. This is taken care of by adding phosphor, but then this red emission keeps increasing over a period of time due to the presence of the continuous radiation effect. This radiation is certainly detrimental for the health of human beings as well as any pet animals in the house.

    Such lamps have been used for purposes such as street lighting since the late 1940s though the modern version of these lamps is much better than they were then. Most governments, especially in the US and EU, are passing regulations against the use of such lamps. In fact they would be barred in the European Union in 2015, while the US has put a ban on ballasts and fixtures since 2008. Still it might take quite some time before these are stopped from being manufactured or used in most other parts of the globe. In such a scenario the onus of protecting the health has to vest with the manufacturers. It needs to be emphasized that all manufacturers should insist that they do not allow any ultraviolet light to escape from the lamp enclosures. The adjacent figure shows the constructional details of a typical mercury vapor lamp with all parts are labeled clearly.

    Mercury Vapour Lamp Construction  

    Image Courtesy: Lamptech, UK