Mercury Contamination and Projection Lamps

Jan 14th, 2019

What to do if a lamp burns out or explodes (and why it’s important to know)

It was one of the worst environmental disasters in modern history, and one of the biggest scandals. From 1932 to 1968, the Chisso chemical company released mercury- contaminated wastewater into the Minamata Bay in Japan, and tens of thousands of local residents, eating seafood from the bay, suffered from mercury poisoning.

Though the causes of “Minamata disease” were well understood by 1959, the company and the local government did little. The effects were obvious enough that local cats were said to have “dancing cat fever,” and children developed “pink’s disease,” in which their skin became pink and peeled. Other symptoms included weakness and loss of muscle control, numbness in the hands and feet, damage to vision, hearing and speech, and, in more severe cases, insanity, paralysis, coma, and death. Unborn children were especially at risk, with effects including brain damage, blindness, seizures, and the inability to speak.

At least 50,000 people were affected. 1,784 died and more than 10,000 received financial compensation from Chisso Corporation.

Out of this disaster came an international treaty known as the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which over 140 countries have signed. It regulates a range of products, processes and industries where mercury is used or emitted, and it will prohibit the manufacture of thousands of products that contain mercury by 2020, except where countries have requested an exemption for an initial five-year period. These products include batteries, compact fluorescent lamps, thermometers, soaps and cosmetics, among others.

Projection lamps have been granted an exemption because there is no good way to build a high-intensity lamp suitable for projection without mercury. Still, a number of projector manufacturers have introduced mercury-free light source technologies based on LED or laser. Casio, a strong supporter of the treaty, was one of the first to introduce mercury-free projectors back in 2010. Others have begun to follow suit. That said, there are hundreds of thousands of projectors using mercury vapor projection lamps still in our classrooms, conference rooms and homes, and so it’s helpful to understand the level of danger and some common-sense ways to deal with it.

Forms of mercury

Before we go much farther, we need to realize that there are various forms of mercury, and some are much more dangerous than others.

Among the most famous cases of mercury poisoning happened in 1997, when a researcher at Dartmouth College absorbed just one or two drops of dimethyl mercury into her skin through a latex glove. She suffered severe muscle and central nervous damage, from which she died after several months. Methylmercury, a related organic compound, is what caused the poisoning in Minamata.

Still, many older people remember playing with or even swallowing elemental mercury from a broken thermometer, with no apparent effects. They may believe that mercury is safe, but it’s just that liquid mercury is not absorbed easily by the skin or even the tissue of the digestive tract. Once in a landfill, however, it can be converted to methylmercury by bacteria and leach into groundwater in this deadly form.

Worse, elemental mercury evaporates, and inhaling the vapor is far more dangerous than ingesting the liquid.

Mercury vapor

The problem with mercury vapor is that the tissue in our lungs absorbs it readily, and from there it passes directly into the bloodstream and various body systems. While liquid mercury may not be very dangerous, it can be as it starts to evaporate in an enclosed space.

That danger is increased multifold if a projection lamp explodes or leaks as it fails. For the lamp to function, the mercury must be heated to several hundred degrees, and shouldof the day. it leak, it will spread rapidly through a room.

For that reason, you need to make sure that, if a bulb explodes, everyone knows to leave the room and knows where to report the problem. Next, you can start taking steps to contain, then eliminate the contamination.

But if a running projection bulb goes dark, it may or may not releasemercury vapor, and in most cases, people do not realize there is a danger.Most often a cracked bulb will not be discovered until a technician comesto replace it. This is a dangerous situation because people may stay in thatroom for the rest of the day.

How dangerous is this type of mercury release?

The Environmental Protection Agency has published a set of Acute Exposure Guideline Levels suggesting that if people are exposed to 0.33 mg of mercury vapor per cubic meter of air over an eight hour period, they have passed a threshold above which they could experience serious and irreversible health effects. At lower levels, most likely the effects would be non-disabling and reversible, but some individuals will experience serious, irreversible effects at lower levels not easily predicted.  

The amount of mercury in a projection lamp will vary, but Philips states that their bulbs contain up to 23 mg of mercury; Ushio says 26 mg. A typical American elementary classroom will be 900 square feet, with a 10’ ceiling.That’s 9,000 cubic feet or 254.8 cubic meters. Release 26 mg of mercuryvapor into this space, we get a concentration of 0.10 mg/m³, about 1/3 the concentration the EPA warns can cause irreversible health effects for most people.

Release that same amount of mercury into a small conference room, home theater or family room, say 15’ x 20’ with an 8’ ceiling, that’s 26 mg into 34 cubic meters, for a concentration of .77 mg/m³. That’s more than double that same .33mg/m³ threshold.

Even at that high level, there’s no reason to panic. The time of exposure is as important as the concentration. At .77 mg/m³, the average adult could sit in that room for more than three hours without irreversible effects. And there is going to be some air change, so actually the time before damage will be longer. As long as people leave immediately, there’s no danger. Whether they leave is the crucial question.

What to do

In case of a mercury spill or release, the EPA suggests seven simple steps:

  • 1. Have everyone leave the area. If it’s a liquid spill, don’t let anyone walk through the mercury on their way out.
  • 2. One person should open all windows and doors to the outside. (Since children and especially unborn children have greater susceptibility, that person should be an adult male, or a female past child-bearing age.)
  • 3. In case of a spill, turn down the temperature to slow down evaporation.
  • 4. Shut all doors to other parts of the building or home.
  • 5. If it’s a mercury spill, do not vacuum.
  • 6. Call your local health department as soon as possible. If it’s after hours, call your local fire department.
  • 7. If you have questions about potential health effects, you can call poison control at 1-800-222-1222.

Because no one can know for sure if a leak has occurred without examining the projector, our recommendation is, if a lamp fails when the projector is in use, it’s time to evacuate the classroom, conference room or home theater. That needs to be standard operating procedure, and you need to train your people to evacuate in every case. Once the room is empty and well-ventilated, a technician needs to inspect the projector to determine if the lamp has cracked. If a crack is found (or if the lamp had exploded), the health department or fire department should be called. We suggest, too, that you consider evacuating the entire building or those parts of the building where the vapor will most easily spread. The good news is that it’s unlikely that vaporous mercury will cause long-term contamination. You are worried about the short term and about minimizing the exposure of staff, students, family and guests.

How to avoid mercury contamination

Assuming you own lamp-based projectors and you plan to keep them, there are several steps you can take to minimize the risk of contamination.

  • 1. Do not use a projection lamp past its recommended lifespan (most often 2,000 hours). The chance for a leak or explosion is exponentially higher from an outdated lamp. All or nearly all projectors allow you to check hours of use, either from a menu accessed by the remote control, or (very often) from your technology office via a network connection. Some projectors can send you an email when it’s time to replace the lamp.
  • 2. Buy your lamps from the projector’s manufacturer, though they may be more expensive. Cheaper third- party replacement lamps are more prone to early failure.
  • 3. Be sure to dispose of the used lamps properly. Expect to pay from $10 - $25 per lamp for disposal, but it’s worth it. Throwing away mercury-containing lamps with your garbage will, more likely than not, contaminate the groundwater in your own town.
  • 4. All new projector purchases should be mercury free.

The reality is, you cannot buy a bulb-based projector free of mercury, but you can buy good projectors with a laser or LED/laser hybrid light source. Not only are they mercury-free, but they will cost you far less over the life of the projector. Mercury vapor projection lamps are expensive, the high levels of heat they produce dramatically lower the lifespan of the projectors, and this heat can contribute to expensive repairs. LampFree projectors will save you money while eliminating the chance of mercury contamination.

As horrible as the Minamata disaster was, we can learn from it and avoid repeating its lessons. In a few years, it will be impossible to buy a projector that uses mercury vapor lamps.

In the meantime, buy LampFree and save everyone’s health as well as your budget.