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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Getting Down to Earth: A Bright Idea or Not?


CFLs, or compact fluorescent lamps, have been touted as the environmentally friendly way to light our homes and businesses. According to Energy Star, if every American home replaced just one light bulb with an Energy Star-qualified bulb, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, more than $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars.
Sounds good to me: save the environment, save the pocketbook! My husband and I have been slowly replacing the burned-out lightbulbs in our house with CFLs, and many of my friends have done the same. But we couldn't help noticing the warning on the package:
"Lamp contains mercury. Manage in accord with disposal laws."
Wait a minute. Mercury is a known neurotoxin! Acute exposure to mercury vapor has been shown to result in profound central nervous system effects, including psychotic reactions characterized by delirium, hallucinations, and suicidal tendency. Fetuses exposed to mercury in the womb are at a much greater risk for developmental disorders.
Energy Star says there's no need to worry. CFLs only have a small amount of mercury vapor in them, which is sealed off in the glass tubing. The amount of mercury contained in the average CFL is 4 milligrams—about the amount that would cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. (As a comparison, old-fashioned thermometers contain about 500 milligrams of mercury, equal to 125 CFLs.) Besides, mercury is an essential part of a compact fluorescent lamp; it allows the bulb to be an efficient light source. No mercury is released when the bulbs are intact (not broken) or in use.
I have yet to crack one of these sturdy bulbs, but there are guidelines (too complicated to go into here) you should follow if you do manage to break one. What I want to address is how to properly dispose of burned-out CFLs. I didn't bother exploring my local laws; I wanted to know the most environmentally responsible option.
The EPA recommends that consumers take advantage of available local recycling options for CFLs, because the mercury in CFLs can be fully recovered and reused through the recycling process. I discovered that both Ikea and Home Depot have CFL recycling programs. At Home Depot, you just give them to the store associate behind the returns desk. You can also take expired bulbs to a hazardous waste drop-off location in your community, but then they may not be recycled.
Why would we want to use a product in our homes that has to be so carefully handled? Because according to, using CFLs can actually reduce the amount of mercury released into the environment each year. Half of the power in the United States is still generated by coal-fired plants, and burning coal releases mercury into the atmosphere (about 10 milligrams over the life of an average incandescent bulb). Because of its superior efficiency, a CFL will only be responsible for about 2.5 milligrams. Even if you add the 4 milligrams of mercury contained in the typical CFL, a CFL is actually responsible for putting less mercury into the wild than its incandescent equivalent.
So lighten up. You're doing the right thing using CFLs. Just try not to break them and don't put them in the trash.

Posted by Jenny at 12:04 PM

Getting Down to Earth: A Bright Idea or Not?

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