BOSTON -- Citing health concerns over mercury pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency will approve a new rule that bars the dumping of fluorescent bulbs into landfills and encourages their recycling, an agency official has confirmed.
The decision, expected early this week, is a victory for recyclers and environmentalists who decried a plan backed by light manufacturers to allow the bulbs to be thrown into landfills.
It will end nearly a decade of debate within the EPA over how to treat an estimated 600 million bulbs thrown away each year.
"This is the common sense way to go about environmental protection," said the official, who spoke Friday on condition of anonymity. "You get the most protection and it's the most cost effective."
The new rule is aimed at large firms and government agencies that buy fluorescent lamps in bulk and account for the vast majority of disposed bulbs. It could eventually spawn recycling programs for homeowners who toss lamps into the household garbage.
Currently the EPA classifies fluorescent bulbs as a hazardous waste and requires they be recycled or thrown in special hazardous waste landfills.
But enforcement has been spotty, according to Michael Bender, a consultant to the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers.
"The reality is that until EPA finalizes this rule the states have taken a wait-and-see attitude and are not enforcing the regulations," he said. "There has been a lot of confusion out there, and this is going to clear up the confusion and make it easier for customers to understand the best things to do with lights."
The new rule will apply to mercury-containing fluorescent, mercury vapor, sodium vapor and metal halide lamps.
A naturally occurring metal, mercury accumulates in fish and becomes more concentrated as it moves up the food chain. In humans, the neurotoxin can slow fetal and child development and cause brain damage.
Already, more than a dozen states -- including Massachusetts -- require that fluorescent light bulbs be recycled.
The new rules would continue to classify the bulbs as a hazardous waste but would also loosen tough standards for record keeping, storage and transportation of bulbs destined for recycling.
Officials from two major light bulb manufacturers -- General Electric Lighting and OSRAM Sylvania Lighting -- have maintained that the hazardous waste label is an overreaction to what is essentially a minuscule environmental threat from mercury-bearing lamps.
Peter Bleasby, director of industry relations and standards at OSRAM Sylvania, said that recycling fluorescent bulbs is cost-prohibitive, given the abundance of recycled mercury from other sources.
In drawing up the new rule, the EPA considered draft studies conducted by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Florida EPA concluding that broken fluorescent bulbs at landfills are strong sources of mercury pollution that can linger for several days.
Bleasby said the studies are flawed.
"Any draft study they have, I can provide you two more that say the exact opposite," he said.