Thursday, May 03, 2007

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs use Mercury; is it bad science, an environmental scam, or both?

These bulbs are becoming increasingly common. Yet they contain mercury, a toxic element that environmentalists warn us about continually. If you break one of these bulbs, how dangerous do you think it is? Is a $2,000 "toxic cleanup" really required? And if so, according to whose standards?

Steven Milloy, publisher of and, has the following article in Canada's Financial Post. Some excerpts:

The CFL mercury nightmare
How much money does it take to screw in a compact fluorescent light bulb? About US$4.28 for the bulb and labour -- unless you break the bulb. Then you, like Brandy Bridges of Ellsworth, Maine, could be looking at a cost of about US$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 light bulbs (CFLs). [...]

It goes on to tell the nightmare story of what happened when a Maine housewife broke one of the bulbs in her daughters bedroom, and ended up dealing with her state's Department of Environmental Protection.

These bulbs are being pushed on consumers, and are also advocated by environmentalists. Yet, how safe are they? If they are really that toxic, why aren't we being warned? Is there some hypocrisy at work here?

[...] 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 five billion light bulb sockets in North 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 United States, 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 in the U.S. 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. [...]

It sounds like some folks want to have it both ways. Is there an Inconvenient Truth we're missing here? Wouldn't some GOOD science, and truthfulness and honesty be preferable?

The only warning on the packaging of the bulbs I have is to keep the bulbs away from radios, TVs, wireless phones and remote controls, as they may cause interference. It also says to keep them away from maritime safety equipment or other critical navigation or communication equipment operating between 0.45-35 MHz.

There is also a caution that it's not intended for use with emergency exit fixtures or lights, electronic timers, photocells or dimmers.

It also warns that the lamp may shatter and cause injury if broken, but it doesn't say anything about how you should clean it up if the bulb breaks. For disposal, it refers you to a website: Since recycling is voluntary, I'm sure most of the bulbs just end up in the trash, getting crushed in land-fill dumps.

It makes me long for the good old days, when a light bulb was a light bulb.

I expect the DEP, with their $2,000 plan to clean up one CFL bulb, was doing what government bureaucrats are so good at doing; creating jobs for themselves. But it's still true that mercury is toxic. I find it ironic that environmentalist who are pushing to have mercury no longer used in thermometers, gleefully push CFL bulbs. How many thermometers do you throw away per year, compared to light bulbs?

But surely there is hardly any mercury in the bulb? Good question. The article continues:

[...] 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 five 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. [...]

Milloy maintains that Environmentalists and vendors like Walmart are working together to push CFLs on us, without acknowledging the true long term consequences and costs. It would seem that "feel-goodism" trumps good science once again. And government bureaucrats get to create a problem and then offer themselves later as the solution to cleaning it up, insuring they will always have government jobs. How nice for them; how expensive for us. I recommend reading the whole article.


Anonymous said...

Seems to be a typical "surface" push from some "soccer mom" some place that no one ever really researches! Remember - you only need one sheet of TP, one flush, fat free fries, eggs are/were bad for you, caffeine will/would have killed you, margarine is better for you than butter and so on and so on and so on! ;-)

Chas said...

I've broken the CFL bulbs, and I just swept them up and disposed of them like I would with any light bulb. I suspect Maine's DEP was overstating it's case.

But since mercury IS toxic, and landfills are being filled with the crushed bulbs, you have to wonder if it's going to cost us untold billions in superfund cleanups later, thereby negating the supposed savings that are being claimed now.

I'd also like to know why the environmentalists freak about mercury, but make an exception for CFL bulbs. Where is the consistency? How much of this is science, and how much of it is emotional posturing?