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Friday, October 3, 2008

Knight Science Journalism Tracker » Blog Archive » CBC, Wall St. Journal, etc: on CFCs, Mercury, and public health


CBC, Wall St. Journal, etc: on CFCs, Mercury, and public health

Stories of home owners suddenly forced to call in expensive toxic waste crews in moon suits to clean up the debris from broken compact fluorescent lights have gone around for a year or two. Mostly the stories are bogus. But the underlying situation is real enough. Mercury from broken bulbs can, it appears, pose a conceivable hazard. Masses of the lights that have failed, shattered or not, don’t belong in landfills for the same reason. Now, Yale University researchers have totted up, for the journal Environmental Science and Technology, what the emissions consequences of large scale adoption of CFLs might be.

It turns out to be a non-trivial question. For one thing, if a region depends heavily on coal plants for its electricity, and because burning of coal itself releases mercury that is naturally present in the fuel, then the lower power demand of CFLs can reduce Hg emissions. But if the power comes from cleaner sources, release of the heavy metal can rise as CFLs become common.

Several outlets pick up the story. The press release, alas, has no numbers to help reporters assess the real-world peril from a broken bulb in the house, or from the changing chemistry of the general environment as such lights become more common. But   “toxic” and “brain damage” show up. This is fodder for overreaction. And without numbers and little context in the press release, the stories The Tracker has seen don’t find you some data and bring them to’ya. It couldn’t have taken more than a few calls and, as seen below, one pretty good piece from the journal itself is on line and useful.


CBC (Canada) ;Wall Street Journal Environmental Capital (blog) Keith Johnson calls it a sampling of the law of unintended consequences; Mother Jones Julia Whitty ; Times of India, with its account apparently from the Indo-Asian News Service, runs it under a hed that says CFLs tend to reduce emissions and in coal-heavy India that may be the case ;

Interesting, a good journalistic story in Environmental Sci. and Technology itself by Erika Engelhaupt accompanies the formal report by the Yale team. It has some useful numbers. It declares that in the US overall, and in most countries, switching to CFLs is a clear environmental winner.

Grist for the Mill: Yale University Press Release ; E Sci Tech abstract ;

Related News: The New Zealand Herald’s Juliet Rowan reports a local company is making energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs “that use a solid form of mercury,” which sounds like a good trick as mercury vapor, one has been told, is essential in CFLs. These don’t look so squiggly, either ,it says here. But they’ll cost you.


This entry was posted on Thursday, October 2nd, 2008 at 2:20 pm and is filed under Health & Medicine Stories, Environment Stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Knight Science Journalism Tracker » Blog Archive » CBC, Wall St. Journal, etc: on CFCs, Mercury, and public health

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