Here’s the latest chapter in the never-ending “you just can’t win” story. Two new reports issued by the state of Maine and the Vermont-based Mercury Policy Project indicate that those righteous, energy-efficient spiral light bulbs endorsed by green organizations can cause mercury poisoning. You have nothing to worry about while the bulbs burn, say the reports — only if they break, when small amounts of mercury vapor can escape. The report warns that infants, pets, and pregnant women are at particular risk from exposure to the neurotoxin — although even strapping adults might worry knowing that the researchers measured mercury levels 100 times in excess of federal guidelines for chronic exposure when they shattered 65 of the compact florescent lamps (CFLs). If the proportions hold true, that means that breaking even one bulb will expose you to more than six times the acceptable level.
Does this mean that we should throw out the spiral wonders and go back to incandescent bulbs? Not at all, say the pundits — the energy savings CFLs provide far outweigh the risks. According to the Department of Energy, if every US household replaced just one light bulb with a compact fluorescent, we’d prevent greenhouse gas emissions equal to the emissions of 800,000 cars. Plus, experts point out that incandescent bulbs actually add more mercury to the environment than do the CFLs, because the coal-fired plants that manufacture incandescent bulbs are the biggest mercury polluters on the planet. In fact, the Maryland Sierra Club did an analysis and found that a 100-watt CFL bulb emits only about one-fifth the amount of mercury vapor as it takes to produce one 100-watt incandescent bulb. And so, the report says keep using the energy efficient bulbs, but know how to properly clean up in case of breakage.
The most worrisome concern, though, isn’t the possibility that you’ll smash 65 bulbs in the baby’s room, or even that you’ll break one. It’s that that energy-efficient bulbs have to go somewhere when they die, and as they enter landfills, they release vast amounts of toxic mercury vapor into the air — ultimately carrying it back to you. As CFLs become ever more prevalent and then get tossed, we’re talking about billions and billions of them ultimately entering the environment. Last year alone, almost 300 million CFL bulbs were sold in the US. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Current legislation requires all bulbs to be energy efficient by 2012.
Unfortunately, there’s not much being done to insure that the bulbs get disposed of in a safe manner when they burn out. In most states, nothing prevents consumers from simply tossing their used bulbs into the garbage, virtually ensuring mercury release. A few states do mandate CFL recycling, but in those cases, consumers have to bring their CFLs to a hazardous waste disposal center rather than putting them in the recycle bin — making compliance rather unlikely.
As Pete Keller, a spokesman for Eco Lights Northwest, says in an NPR commentary, “I think most people do want to recycle, but if it’s not made easy, it doesn’t happen. And [compact fluorescent bulbs] are small enough to fit in a trash can. By nature, I think most people are not recyclers. So if it’s small enough to fit in a trash can, that’s where it ends up.” That means that even if you opt for non-mercury LED bulbs (a good option, albeit a whole lot more expensive), you won’t escape exposure — courtesy of your neighbors.
That’s all the more reason to do regular heavy metal detoxing. And in the meantime, if you happen to break compact florescent bulb, here’s what the Mercury Policy Project says to do:
- Get children and pets out of the room.
- Open windows.
- Do not vacuum. Rather, get stiff cardboard or paper and tape to pick up mercury.
- Wipe the area with a damp towel.
- Put shards and debris in a glass with a screw top and remove from the house.
And don’t those instructions give you a warm fuzzy feeling? If these bulbs are so safe, then why is clean up just one step short of a Hazmat suit?