Mercury Falling

It's pretty hard to go a whole day without using a metal halide discharge lamp. Even if you could manage for a single day, or even a week, think about the impact of doing without them altogether. Think very hard.

The majority of our ENG, EFP and location equipment is based around that venerable metal halide discharge, the HMI (although sports stadiums use a variety of other metal halide formulations). In the studio, metal halide lamps are generally only present in followspots or robotic luminaires, but robotics, for better or worse, are becoming ever more popular. At present, every variety of metal halide discharge lamp in use (HMI, MSR, MSD, HTI, HSR, HMP, HSD, etc.) contains mercury, in combination with a cocktail of the halide salts of metals. It is with this mercury that the problem lies.

Mercury has long been known to be a highly toxic and biologically persistent substance. It is now recognized that mercury should only be used if there are no alternative materials and technologies available. If mercury must be used, it should be treated with caution and extreme care should be taken to prevent its escape into the environment.

Currently there is mercury-related legislation in various stages of enactment in some twenty states, with many more to follow. These bills generally require the labeling of mercury-containing products, limit the sale of some goods containing mercury, and mandate that discarded products have their mercury content removed or recovered before disposal. In most of these states the disposal of mercury-bearing products will be implemented through the EPA's Universal Waste Rule. Developed by the EPA in the early 90's, this is a streamlined, safe disposal protocol, designed to deal with the huge volume of dangerous waste produced in small amounts in every home and business.


The burden that these bills will impose on most production facilities is relatively straightforward. In most cases it will entail setting up a paperwork system to track mercury-containing purchases and the establishment of a single point of disposal for all mercury-containing waste. This will encompass fluorescent tubes, some switching gear, and the metal halide discharge lamps used in production, workshops, storage facilities, roadway and security lighting. Such a regime should be no more difficult or disruptive to implement than existing in-house programs for secure document destruction or wastepaper recycling, and can effectively eliminate the release of mercury into the environment.

If things were as simple as they appear so far, you could be forgiven for wondering why I have bothered to raise the matter at all. However, as the television industry knows only too well, the political process can become derailed. Inexplicable regulatory schemes are by no means a novelty to us.

The Rhode Island Mercury Reduction and Education Act, in addition to the labelling and safe-disposal of mercury- containing products, requires the progressive phasing-out of mercury usage in that state. This well-intentioned legislation prevents the sale of any product containing more than 1 gram of mercury after Jan. 1, 2004, an amount that reduces to 100 mg from Jan. 1, 2006, and finally comes down to 10 mg in 2008. This will effectively eliminate the use of metal halide lamps greater than 1 kw from the beginning of 2006, and virtually all currently available mercury-containing lamps from 2008.

Whilst almost all of us don't work in Rhode Island, many in the very active anti-mercury lobby see the elimination of mercury as being preferable to its careful and controlled use, and are looking to use the Rhode Island bill as a model for other states. The impact of the enactment of this type of legislation in just a couple of the more populous states is potentially devastating to film, television and live production.

Although mercury-free xenon arc lamps could possibly be used in some applications, there are presently no low-mercury- content lamps to replace the majority of metal halides in current use, nor is there any sign of them becoming available in the immediate future. Apparently some lamp manufacturers have indicated that they plan to reduce the mercury content of metal halide lamps. However, my enquiries of three of the world's largest lamp producers, have, as yet, failed to elicit any indications that such work is in progress, but I will keep you informed of developments on this front.


In the meantime let's consider what our world would be like without the compact, high-efficiency lightsources that metal halides provide. The optics of many of today's portable and robotic luminaires are dependent on the availability of a small, high-brightness source, while the energy efficiency makes the thermal and mechanical engineering possible. These luminaires simply could not be built using the only alternative technology -- incandescent lamps. The filament source area is too large for compact, efficient optics, and the much lower energy efficiency would require roughly four times the input power and four times the cooling.

The 2008 incandescent version of a 2002 robotic (the "" or the MAC 2008), would weigh in at something like half a ton, draw around 15 kW of power, be the size of a 55 gallon oil drum, and make as much noise as an air conditioner. An 18 kW HMI would be replaced by a neat little cluster of around eight incandescent 10K's, complete with CTB gels. Our ENG camera light would be replaced by a redhead, powered by a trolley-load of auto batteries. The re-lighting of sports stadiums to broadcast requirements, using tungsten halogen sources will be a nightmare, requiring additional towers and utility supplies and dozens of the new incandescent, Musco Light trucks.

The most ironic aspect to banning, rather than carefully managing mercury-bearing metal halide lamps, is that we will actually be taking the retrograde step towards substantially less energy-efficient light sources. Based on the emissions inventory in the EPA's Mercury Study Report to Congress in December 1997, the highest emitting source category is coal-burning electric utilities. This group of sources account for one-third of the man-made emissions in the U.S. Clearly this absurd outcome is not in anyone's interest, and is almost certainly not the intention of those who care about a sustainable future for humanity.


What then, can we do about the mercury issue, and its impact upon us? We can start to ask our lamp suppliers about their expended lamp collection programs. We can talk to our lighting and camera crews, and health and safety advisors about managing the process of tracking the stocks of spare and expended lamps in the field and the studio.

Most importantly, we need to advise our elected representatives of the possible unintended side effects of what is obviously well-intentioned pollution-reduction legislation. ESTA, the Entertainment Services and Technology Association, who represent the majority of lamp and luminaire suppliers in the entertainment industry, are taking this matter very seriously. ESTA is operating as an entertainment industry focal point to ensure that whatever legislation is enacted, it will be done with a full understanding of its impact on our industry. Available on the ESTA web site (, are some template letters that can be used as a basis for writing to your representatives.

There is one more thing we can do to inform the public and our politicians of the impact of totally eliminating mercury, rather than taking care to use the minimum possible amount of it in the safest possible way. Many of us work alongside journalists, editors, and news and current affairs producers. Some of them may not yet be aware how a mercury ban will affect their everyday work.