Light Bulb Good Light Bulb Bad

Compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) are made in India and China,
where environmental standards are virtually non-existent....
Fluorescent lightbulbs contain mercury.
Mercury is a highly toxic heavy metal that can cause brain damage
and learning disabilities in fetuses and children and
is one of the most poisonous forms of pollution.


Not only are fluorescent bulbs much more expensive
and emit light that many regard as inferior to incandescent bulbs,
they pose a nightmare if they break and
require hazardous waste disposal procedures.

How to dispose of fluorescent lightbulbs
by Tom Spears, Ottawa Citizen, Apr 22, 2007

Suddenly compact fluorescent lightbulbs are everyone's bright idea. Ontario will soon sell no other kind of bulb. Neither will Australia. Nova Scotia and several U.S. states are also considering a ban on the traditional incandescent bulb (the type with a filament). As prices fall, variety grows and compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) become smaller and better, there's a lot of good news. But it's not a perfect world. The long-lasting, energy-savings bulbs also contain tiny but significant amounts of toxic waste.

The Bad News

Fluorescent bulbs of any kind -- compact ones or the long tubes used in offices -- contain mercury. Mercury builds up in the environment, especially in lakes and rivers. It is a nerve poison that can do bad things to fish and to the creatures that eat them, from loons to people -- mainly central nervous system damage.

That means you shouldn't throw old bulbs in the garbage, said John Jeza, director of mass markets for the Ontario Power Authority. "Basically it's treated as household hazardous waste," he said. That puts it in the same category as leftover pesticides, batteries and other toxic chemicals. The bulbs are classed as household hazardous waste in Ottawa, and can be dropped at any of several one-day household hazardous waste depots the city operates each spring, summer and fall.

And one last twist: The Ontario Fire Marshall has collected about 60 compact fluorescent bulbs that either developed scorch marks or actually caught fire briefly. So far none have done any harm, but the industry is looking into whether some bulbs are substandard or even unsafe. It hasn't provided answers yet.

The Good News

CFLs have been on the market for years, but it's mainly in the past year that demand has jumped. The little bulbs usually fit into a standard screw base, like the traditional incandescent bulb. The fluorescent bonus: It uses about one-quarter the electricity, saving money and reducing greenhouse gas emissions without a costly overhaul of fixtures and wiring. While costing two or three times more than "normal" bulbs, the compact fluorescent typically lasts six or seven times longer.

It works this way: You have a tube filled with argon and mercury gas. Electrons move through the tube from end to end and "excite" the mercury -- raising its atoms to a state of higher energy. As the mercury returns to an unexcited state, it gives off photons, which hit a coating on the inside of the glass tube and create visible light. Sounds complex, but it's more energy-efficient than the old filament method, creating less waste heat and more light...

The Bottom Line

Despite that bit of toxic waste, Mr. Jeza is firm that fluorescent bulbs bring an environmental benefit overall. The U.S. Union of Concerned Scientists acknowledges the mercury needs proper disposal, but agrees with the manufacturers that the amount is small and the bulbs do much more good than harm....

Junk Science: Light Bulb Lunacy
by Steven Milloy, Fox News, Apr 26, 2007,2933,268747,00.html

How much money does it take to screw in a compact fluorescent lightbulb? About $4.28 for the bulb and labor — unless you break the bulb. Then you, like Brandy Bridges of Ellsworth, Maine, could be looking at a cost of about $2,004.28, which doesn’t include the costs of frayed nerves and risks to health.

Sound crazy? Perhaps no more than the stampede to ban the incandescent light bulb in favor of compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) — a move already either adopted or being considered in California, Canada, the European Union and Australia.

According to an April 12 article in The Ellsworth American, Bridges had the misfortune of breaking a CFL during installation in her daughter’s bedroom: It dropped and shattered on the carpeted floor. Aware that CFLs contain potentially hazardous substances, Bridges called her local Home Depot for advice. The store told her that the CFL contained mercury and that she should call the Poison Control hotline, which in turn directed her to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The DEP sent a specialist to Bridges’ house to test for mercury contamination. The specialist found mercury levels in the bedroom in excess of six times the state’s “safe” level for mercury contamination of 300 billionths of a gram per cubic meter.

The DEP specialist recommended that Bridges call an environmental cleanup firm, which reportedly gave her a “low-ball” estimate of $2,000 to clean up the room. The room then was sealed off with plastic and Bridges began “gathering finances” to pay for the $2,000 cleaning. Reportedly, her insurance company wouldn’t cover the cleanup costs because mercury is a pollutant.

Given that the replacement of incandescent bulbs with CFLs in the average U.S. household is touted as saving as much as $180 annually in energy costs — and assuming that Bridges doesn’t break any more CFLs — it will take her more than 11 years to recoup the cleanup costs in the form of energy savings. Even if you don’t go for the full-scale panic of the $2,000 cleanup, the do-it-yourself approach is still somewhat intense, if not downright alarming.

Consider the procedure offered by the Maine DEP’s Web page entitled: “What if I accidentally break a fluorescent bulb in my home?”

Don’t vacuum bulb debris because a standard vacuum will spread mercury-containing dust throughout the area and contaminate the vacuum. Ventilate the area and reduce the temperature. Wear protective equipment like goggles, coveralls and a dust mask.

Collect the waste material into an airtight container. Pat the area with the sticky side of tape. Wipe with a damp cloth. Finally, check with local authorities to see where hazardous waste may be properly disposed.

The only step the Maine DEP left off was the final one: Hope that you did a good enough cleanup so that you, your family and pets aren’t poisoned by any mercury inadvertently dispersed or missed. This, of course, assumes that people are even aware that breaking CFLs entails special cleanup procedures.

The potentially hazardous CFL is being pushed by companies such as Wal-Mart, which wants to sell 100 million CFLs at five times the cost of incandescent bulbs during 2007, and, surprisingly, environmentalists.

It’s quite odd that environmentalists have embraced the CFL, which cannot now and will not in the foreseeable future be made without mercury. Given that there are about 4 billion lightbulb sockets in American households, we’re looking at the possibility of creating billions of hazardous waste sites such as the Bridges’ bedroom.

Usually, environmentalists want hazardous materials out of, not in, our homes. These are the same people who go berserk at the thought of mercury being emitted from power plants and the presence of mercury in seafood. Environmentalists have whipped up so much fear of mercury among the public that many local governments have even launched mercury thermometer exchange programs. As the activist group Environmental Defense urges us to buy CFLs, it defines mercury on a separate part of its Web site as a “highly toxic heavy metal that can cause brain damage and learning disabilities in fetuses and children” and as “one of the most poisonous forms of pollution.”

Greenpeace also recommends CFLs while simultaneously bemoaning contamination caused by a mercury thermometer factory in India. But where are mercury-containing CFLs made? Not in the U.S., under strict environmental regulation. CFLs are made in India and China, where environmental standards are virtually non-existent. And let’s not forget about the regulatory nightmare known as the Superfund law, the EPA regulatory program best known for requiring expensive but often needless cleanup of toxic waste sites, along with endless litigation over such cleanups.

We’ll eventually be disposing billions and billions of CFL mercury bombs. Much of the mercury from discarded and/or broken CFLs is bound to make its way into the environment and give rise to Superfund liability, which in the past has needlessly disrupted many lives, cost tens of billions of dollars and sent many businesses into bankruptcy.

As each CFL contains 5 milligrams of mercury, at the Maine “safety” standard of 300 nanograms per cubic meter, it would take 16,667 cubic meters of soil to “safely” contain all the mercury in a single CFL. While CFL vendors and environmentalists tout the energy cost savings of CFLs, they conveniently omit the personal and societal costs of CFL disposal.

Not only are CFLs much more expensive than incandescent bulbs and emit light that many regard as inferior to incandescent bulbs, they pose a nightmare if they break and require special disposal procedures. Should government (egged on by environmentalists and the Wal-Marts of the world) impose on us such higher costs, denial of lighting choice, disposal hassles and breakage risks in the name of saving a few dollars every year on the electric bill?


Age of enlightenment. BBC, Mar 16, 2007
It's hard to think of another electrical component that is more affordable, ubiquitous and disposable; its influence more profound, than the familiar incandescent tungsten filament light bulb. It is largely unchanged from the one that Edison patented 127 years ago....

Compact Flourescent Lightbulbs disposal warning. BBC, Jan 5, 2008
The Environment Agency has called for more information to be made available on the health and environmental risks posed by low-energy light bulbs. It says because the bulbs contain small amounts of mercury, more information about safe recycling is needed. It also wants health warnings printed on packaging and information on how to clear up smashed bulbs in the home. But a toxicologist has played down the risks, saying several bulbs would have to be smashed at once to pose a danger. Environmental scientist Dr David Spurgeon said: "Because these light bulbs contain small amounts of mercury they could cause a problem if they are disposed of in a normal waste-bin. "It is possible that the mercury they contain could be released either into the air or from land-fill when they are released into the wider environment. "That's a concern, because mercury is a well known toxic substance. Official advice from the Department of the Environment states that if a low-energy bulb is smashed, the room needs to be vacated for at least 15 minutes. A vacuum cleaner should not be used to clear up the debris, and care should be taken not to inhale the dust. Instead, rubber gloves should be used, and the broken bulb put into a sealed plastic bag - which should be taken to the local council for disposal. Unbroken used bulbs can be taken back to the retailer if the owner is a member of the Distributor Takeback Scheme. Otherwise, many local waste disposal sites now have the facilities to safely collect and dispose of old bulbs. However, this advice is not printed on the packaging that low-energy bulbs are sold in. Toxicologist Dr David Ray, from the University of Nottingham, said about 6-8mg of mercury was present in a typical low-energy bulb, which he described as a "pretty small amount". "Mercury accumulates in the body - especially the brain," he said. "The biggest danger is repeated exposure - a one off exposure is not as potentially dangerous compared to working in a light bulb factory. "If you smash one bulb then that is not too much of a hazard. However, if you broke five bulbs in a small unventilated room then you might be in short term danger." Adrian Harding of the Environment Agency said: "More information does need to be made available by retailers, local authorities and the government to alert people to the best way of dealing with these products when they become waste."... This month shops in the UK will begin the process of phasing out traditional tungsten bulbs as part of a government plan to completely replace them by 2011. Ministers hope that using the more environmentally-friendly bulbs will save at least save 5m tonnes-worth of carbon dioxide emissions every year.




Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~