From Barb Kaplan:
Energy Efficient Light Bulbs
“Consider removal of carpeting section where the breakage has occurred as a precaution when there are infants, small children and pregnant women present.” This unsettling quote comes from the Vermont Department of Health and Environmental Conservation website, and it is one of the instructions given if you break a compact fluorescent light bulb.
In an effort to reduce the amount of energy we use, new legislation has been enacted at the local, state, and federal level here and abroad regarding energy efficient light bulbs. Incandescent bulbs, the type most people use in their homes, will in time cease to be manufactured because they are not energy efficient.
In the last year, compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) have been repeatedly in the news because, although they cost about four times as much as a traditional light bulb, they use less energy to power them and last about six times as long. The main downside to CFLs is that they contain mercury, the second most hazardous neurotoxin on the planet. While a functioning CFL is not of concern, breakage and disposal of them are.
Compact fluorescent light bulbs contain a “trace” of mercury, 4 to 5 milligrams of it. The 25 micrograms of mercury in a flu shot, which may be responsible for the epidemic of children diagnosed with autism, is 1/200th of the mercury in a single light bulb of which there could be several in every room of every home. Keep in mind that leftover flu shots have to be treated as bio-hazard waste because they contain mercury, far less than what is in one CFL. To realize the enormity of this, consider that there are about 8 million households in New York State alone. If each household disposed of just one compact fluorescent light bulb per year, that’s over 32 kilograms of mercury to be recycled.
Compact fluorescent light bulbs cost 4 times as much as a traditional light bulb, averaging $2.00 versus 50 cents, and will save around $5.00 in electricity. There are other new bulbs that are emerging that are safer but may be, for the time being, cost prohibitive. For example, Home Depot has started selling a $5.00 Philips halogen bulb that’s 30% more efficient than current incandescents and has no mercury; however, most consumers will already balk at the $2.00 CFL and are unlikely to want to spent twenty dollars on a 4-pack of bulbs.
Under law recently signed by President George W. Bush, all light bulbs must use 25% to 30% less energy than today’s products by 2012 to 2014. The phase-in will start with 100-watt bulbs in January 2012 and end with 40-watt bulbs in January 2014. By 2020, bulbs must be 70% more efficient. Compact fluorescent bulbs meet the more stringent 70% efficiency standard. There are now laws banning incandescent bulbs in Cuba, Venezuela, Australia, Canada, and the European Union (27 countries). However, most of the other countries are not making as aggressive a timeframe for phase-in, which allows more time for new, less expensive, technology to be invented and recycling resources to potentially be created.
Some state and counties are beginning to pass similar laws. California, Connecticut, North Carolina and Rhode Island, and New Jersey are in the process of legislating against or have already passed laws against incandescents. Beginning January 1, 2012, it will be illegal to sell, purchase or even use a low-efficiency incandescent lamp in Suffolk County, New York.
The idea of allowing mercury to be placed in an easily breakable consumer product is fraught with public safety risks. In fact, it required a special exemption from the EPA to allow mercury-fluorescent lamps to be sold to consumers in the first place. Despite the decrease in the amount of mercury in the environment coming out of coal-fired power plants, the risk is being delivered directly to consumers’ homes.
The issue of breakage and disposal of CFLs is significant. If you drop one or more bulbs during installation or removal, or if your child knocks over a lamp with a CFL and it breaks, you have exposed yourselves and your children to airborne mercury. If a bulb does break in a home, leaving the window open and clearing out the room is not sufficient clean-up. Clean-up requires individuals to wear respiratory protection, as the Lumex values in the area surrounding the broken bulb will exceed safety guidelines. The broken glass cannot be vacuumed because the mercury vapors will disperse, causing wider-spread danger. Note that on some packages of CFLs, there are no warning labels (they are not mandatory) to tell a consumer that, for example, CFLs cannot be used with track, recessed, or dimmer fixtures, which could cause overheating. Some warning labels have information but in fine print.
Mercury affects the nervous system, causing brain, nerve, kidney, and lung damage. It can cause memory loss and, in extreme cases, even death. It retards brain development of fetuses and children, who are most vulnerable to mercury’s toxic effects. In fact, as of January 1, Minnesota banned mercury as a preservative in beauty products. Senator John Marty of Roseville, Minn., who sponsored the ban, stated, “Mercury does cause neurological damage to people even in tiny quantities. Every source of mercury adds to it.” New York and Illinois prohibit consumer products with mercury, such as figurines, toys and jewelry. So, why make mercury in the form of compact fluorescent light bulbs the likely replacement for incandescents?
Mercury is so toxic that the world’s 30 leading industrialized countries, including the U.S., have agreed to “cease all further work on mercury”. This means that we have to import mercury in order to make the bulbs, in violation of the spirit of the coalition.
There are inadequate ways to CFLs recycled. Ikea Stores are accepting them for recycling. However, my local store representative told me that when “dropping” the CFLs into the mailbox-type receptacle, the possibility exists that the bulbs could break. In addition, communities will have to find a safe and effective means of recycling these bulbs. Currently, this type of recycling in many communities is the once every month or two whereby any hazardous materials, such as lead-based paint cans and car batteries, can be dropped off. Some states, cities and counties have outlawed putting CFL bulbs into the trash, but in most states the practice is legal. Generally speaking, compliance is likely to be quite low as consumers currently toss used mercury-free incandescent bulbs into the trash.
However, there is obvious risk to storing and transporting the CFLs, which could be broken inadvertently while in one’s garage. Certainly we can’t all be driving to Ikea every time a bulb needs replacing. “The problem with the bulbs is that they’ll break before they get to the landfill. They’ll break in containers, or they’ll break in a dumpster or they’ll break in the trucks. Workers may be exposed to very high levels of mercury when that happens,” said John Skinner, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, the trade group for the people who handle trash and recycling.
If a CFL is thrown into the regular trash container, when the garbage truck crushes the bulb, the mercury is released and the garbage man is exposed to a neuro-toxin. Subsequently, when the garbage is delivered to a landfill, mercury is released into the air, and, subsequently, soil, and water.
In Suffolk County, New York, County Executive Steve Levy, after signing into law legislation banning incandescents in 2012, he responded to a constituent as follows: “Rest assured, I did not make the decision to convert County facilities lightly and will take proper disposal of these bulbs [CFLs] seriously once full-scale conversion begins officially.” In other words, ban the safe but inefficient bulbs even though we have not figured out a safe way to deal with the very real problem of what to do with broken bulbs and used bulbs. As fluorescent bulbs are already on the market, the time to explore the options has already passed.
According to www.lightbulbrecycling.com, each year an estimated 600 million fluorescent light bulbs (“lamps”) are currently being disposed of in U.S. landfills, amounting to 30,000 pounds of mercury waste. Astonishingly, that is almost half the amount of mercury emitted into the atmosphere by coal-fired power plants each year. In addition, it only takes 4 mg of mercury, the amount of mercury in one compact fluorescent bulb, to contaminate up to 7,000 gallons of freshwater. This is prior to these laws even going into effect.
We need to delay legislation until mercury-free bulbs, such as halogens, become more available at prices less expensive than they currently are. The reality is that consumers are going to choose the relatively cheaper, mercury-laden compact fluorescent light bulbs which bring the dangers of mercury directly to the consumer and will inevitably harm the environment and its inhabitants far more than the energy efficiency will help.
We need to contact our local legislators as well as President Bush and tell them to delay implementation of the new energy efficiency standards indefinitely until such a time that halogen technology can improve and become cheaper. We need to have more recycling facilities in place for the compact fluorescent light bulbs that are already out there and safer ways to get the light bulbs to these facilities.
For additional reading on this subject, consult these web links where much of the preceding information originated: