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What You Might Not Know About CFLs

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5 August, 2007 | 11:57 am

Should you replace all of your incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFLs)? The government, your environmentalist buddies, and even Wal-Mart seem to think so, and in fact insist that those who resist the shift are selfishly wasting. However, in my research on CFLs, I found a few important nuggets of information of which the standard consumer should be well aware.

1) CFLs are manufactured to contain 4 mg of mercury per light bulb. If CFLs become widespread, so does the inherent danger of mercury exposure. To give some context to that amount, a typical natural tuna in the U.S. contains about 0.2 mg/kg body weight, which translates into 0.24 ppm mercury in canned tuna. The EPA may suggest that this amount of mercury is negligible and poses no threat to human health or longterm environmental contamination, but even a junior high school chemistry student knows not to trust the government's insistence that a broken mercury thermometer does not threaten an individual's health. In actuality, the current EPA reference dose--the dose below which adverse effects are not recognized--is 0.1 micrograms/kg/day (0.1 micrograms = 0.0001 mg). Because of biological sensitivity to mercury, it is a serious consideration in both production and disposal.

When exposed to the neurological toxicant methylmercury (MeHg), humans suffer movement, speech, hearing, muscular, and visual impairment. The developmental effects in utero are even more extreme, involving impairment of the central nervous system, including cognition, memory, attention, and language performance. Methylmercury is lipophilic (loves fats) and thus accumulates readily in the brain and crosses the placenta during pregnancy. In addition, it is extremely persistent in the environment and bioconcentrates up the food chain--being found in highest concentrations in larger, predatory organisms.

EPA's CFL mercury fact sheet
EPA's mercury information
National Research Council - Toxicological Effects of Methylmercury
MeHg in adults - Atchison and Hare 1994
MeHg in utero - Crump et al. 1998

2) CFL packaging does not instruct the consumer what to do if a bulb breaks, let alone warn that they contain mercury and phosphorous powder. The Freedom Enterprise Action Fund is taking the initiative and in May 2007 announced that they are petitioning the Consumer Safety Product Commission (CSPC) to include mercury warnings on CFL packaging.

But what if a bulb does break? Energy Star details a clean-cut four-step process for "safely" gathering up the contamination. However, there is no true safe way to deal with spilled methylmercury; fumes are instantly released, making the first moments of the light bulb shattering the most dangerous, which is completely unavoidable. What's worse is if the person to break the bulb is unable to understand or execute proper methodology, such as a child. Not only would a child be unlikely to follow correct safety procedures, but children are more susceptible to the neurological effects of vaporized methylmercury.

The Energy Star recommendations (derived from the EPA), although they mention recycling, primary suggest sealing the debris in doubled plastic bags and placing it in the curbside garbage for "normal trash disposal." Assuming normal trash disposal leads the mercury to a landfill, we then face the probable leakage of the heavy metal into the soil, and in turn water supply and even agricultural produce. The EPA insists that local ground mercury contamination is preferable to the atmospheric contamination resulting from coal-based energy production. In contrast to that view, I would argue that no mercury release is acceptable, and that in fact, landfill contamination will disproportionately affect low-income, minority communities.

Given that the public is better informed and has access to the proper facilities, CFLs and even the mercury from a broken light bulb can be recycled. Recycling facilities use air-compressed vacuums and carbon filters to isolate the mercury for reuse. Something I have been unable to find further information on is the possibility of installing carbon filters on coal-based energy plant stacks and using that mercury to manufacture CFLs. In that case, both atmospheric pollution and all the nasties that result from mercury mining (such as miner exposure and run-off) can be reduced.

Freedom Enterprise Action Fund
Energy Star Clean-up
Solid Waste and Environmental Racism
New Idria Mercury Mine

3) Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs: energy efficiency, light range, and alternatives.

It's nice enough to browse the statistics on projected energy savings from CFL use, but I am not entirely convinced that the energy savings justify the mercury use. House lighting is far from being the primary source of energy consumption in this country, though most households are still behind the times in terms of such simple practices as turning off lights when not needed. CFLs quite simply do not address the environmental behavioral changes needed to directly head off our energy use.

Customers do not appear to be reaping the benefits of the claimed ~7 year life span on CFL bulbs, which may indeed be an overshot. In response to this shortcoming, industry claims that turning off and on the bulbs shortens their lifespan, and that customers may be able to extend the span if they leave lights on if they are absent for shorter time periods. I hardly see this as being energy efficient practice! Another area that I do not see examined is the background energy use involved in CFLs, such as transportation from the home to available purchase centers (or online product delivery), transportation of used bulbs to recycling facilities, and energy used in the recycling process itself. That's assuming, of course, that they are recycled.

Another area of CFLs worth mentioning is the light range of bulbs available. Though praised for their low cost and long life, cheaper CFLs are usually of the "cool white" variety, which have been correlated with nausea, headaches, and weakened immunity and have been banned in Germany altogether because of their negative health and productivity effects. Fret not, for full spectrum CFLs are available for purchase, though unfortunately for nearly twice the price. Doubling the price of CFLs essentially shreds the argument that the price is justified by the lifespan.

A potential alternative to CFLs is light emitting diodes (LEDs). In recent years, LEDs have been excessively expensive for the standard household (more than $5 for a basic LED chip), but developments in LED technology involving replacing phosphor with polymer and increasing the size of the bulbs will make it possible to manufacture affordable and increasingly efficient LEDs, minus the mercury needed for CFLs. Also, advances in green building are making it possible to efficiently install more windows for more natural daylight--the most preferable of light options.

If, however, you are planning on purchasing CFLs for your home or office, please consider the lovely gem of Neo-lite. Neo-lite offers full spectrum CFLs at prices comparable to regular cool whites, containing only 1 mg mercury and manufactured in accordance with ROHS.

CNET article on LEDs
E-efficient windows

It appears that much of the argument that we should stock our homes and businesses with little mercury-toting globes is based on the status quo of using coal for the majority of our electricity needs. Coal mining and processing is one of the greatest environmental issues in this country, leading to the destruction of entire tracks of land through strip-mining, severe health consequences for coal miners, and air pollution in the forms of particulate matter, ash, carbon, and mercury vapors. Yet, in the DC metro trains, one can find advertisements for the U.S. coal industry, promoted with photos of running, laughing children. Is this our future? Clearly our energy and pollution problems rest on a faulty foundation much larger than an incandescent light bulb.

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Comments {3}

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from: laraness
date: 7 August, 2007 05:46 am (UTC)

I find it interesting that you say "we do have the story straight." In the book I'm currently reading, Earth Odyssey, journalist Mark Hertsgaard points out that most Americans consider themselves environmentalists. Many of the terms and descriptions in environmentalism, including exactly what it might be that qualifies one to BE an environmentalist, need clearer definition. The only problem is that how one interprets these terms often involves values, and that is something scientists just cannot define for everyone else. But right, people need the terms to educate their values. Hmm catch twenty-two.

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another pov

from: Unidentified Citizen
date: 10 October, 2007 03:07 am (UTC)

apply any bias to his data you feel appropriate but you'll likely find this interesting:

[if your typin' it the caps aRe important]

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from: Unidentified Citizen
date: 23 August, 2008 06:40 am (UTC)

It is so nice. Very nice writing style. It is nice to see. There was some other position I read awhile ago on another site that helped me in the same way yours has helped take me to the following step.

Thanks for sharing!

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