Most everyone is well versed in how switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL’s) saves electricity and money. Saving electricity in many areas means burning less coal. This is good because of the multiple pollutants and environmental problems that result from coal combustion. So CFL’s are the natural green light bulb choice?
You may know that CFL’s contain mercury. This is a metal that is often persistent and volatile in the environment. It has a nasty trait of high bio-concentration rates in organisms. This means it stays in things like fish tissue and even accumulates in animals that eat fish. Depending on the form and level of concentration, mercury has different health effects on humans. It results in kidney damage if consumed at high levels in drinking water. Breathing mercury results in a number of nervous system and lung problems. There is no clear link between mercury and cancer, though the EPA admits there is little data available.
CFL’s as the green light bulb option becomes less clear with this knowledge. Making an informed choice requires more investigation. According to energystar.gov CFL’s use about 75% less energy than traditional light bulbs. It goes on to state the EPA estimates “if all 290 million CFL’s sold in 2007 were sent to a landfill (versus recycled, as a worst case) – they would add only 0.13 metric tons, or 0.1%, to U.S. mercury emissions caused by humans.” In other words, less mercury ends up in the environment because of reduced energy use.
Even if resulting mercury levels were higher with CFL’s, we still have to consider other environmental factors involved with electricity production. If it is electricity from coal combustion carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, Nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, VOC’s, arsenic, and other toxic metal emissions result. This is a list of pollutants that cause an array of negative health effects ranging from cancer and nervous system disorders, to asthma.
We have not even accounted for appalling mining practices such as mountain top removal that have become routine for the coal industry. The green light bulb choice is clear. CFL’s on the whole are better for the environment and your pocketbook…or maybe not.
Dealing with broken bulbs…A Nuisance
Should a bulb break in your home, appropriate cleanup and precautions should be taken. These include ensuring the area is ventilated. Steps on how to deal with a CFL breaking can be found here. It is necessary that CFL’s be sent to proper hazardous waste recycling facilities to avoid mercury exposure to workers, and environmental contamination. Some areas do not have such facilities, yet in others it is unlawful to put mercury containing waste out with the “regular” trash.
How Concerned Should You Be
While contamination is a concern, there is estimated to be about 5 milligrams of mercury in an average bulb. An average mercury thermometer contains about 500 milligrams. This is used as evidence for the safety of CFL’s.
A quote from Professor Sue Macintosh of Harvard University often turns up as proof that broken CFL’s are not a huge concern. She states a broken bulb in a room that immediately vaporizes 5 mg of mercury will result in exposures “not likely to be dangerous.”
A 2008 report by Dr. Edward Groth, “Shedding Light on Risks from CFL Breakage”, cites studies that say “broken CFL can produce mercury vapor levels well in excess of current state and federal guidelines.” The same report goes on to state that consumers should choose CFL’s, but closely follow safety guidelines, not put bulbs in lamps where kids could knock them over, and buy bulbs with the lowest amounts of mercury. In addition, it is recommended that the lighting industry phase out CFL’s “in favor of more sustainable technologies”.
LED’s, The Real Green Light Bulb
My opinion is that CFL’s are not the green light bulb choice. As a student and teacher of environmental science, I hear scientists and environmentalists promoting the merits of the precautionary principle every day. I find it odd that this same group is so quick to promote flooding the market with a product containing mercury. As a person who wants to do what’s best for the environment what does this mean?
Buy LED lights for purposes like reading lamps, porch lights and night lights, and wait for them to become cheaper and better for all purposes. LED’s are twice as efficient as CFL’s and contain no mercury. As they become more widely manufactured, the price will go down and the technology will get better. In the mean time, only use the lights when you need them.
Energy Star on Mercury Emissions: http://energystar.custhelp.com/cgi-bin/energystar.cfg/php/enduser/std_adp.php?p_faqid=5411&p_created=1220627774
Shedding Light on Risks from CFL Breakage: http://mpp.cclearn.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/final_shedding_light_all.pdf