Oh No! CFLs May Increase Mercury Pollution
Proximity to Other Sources Determines Risk
Granted, no one will get rich switching light bulbs, but while each bulb costs more, it uses 75% less energy and lasts 10-times longer - yielding a $30 savings over its lifetime.
An average home has 45 light bulbs, so at $5 per bulb, the cost of replacing all of them is $225. The cost-savings over their lifetime is $1,350, for a profit of $1,125 - five times the initial investment.
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By Dan Shapley
Concern over trace amounts of the toxic metal mercury in compact fluorescent bulbs has scared some people away from making the switch to the more energy-efficient technology.
Broken bulbs in the home is the chief concern for anyone using the bulbs, but the risk to the environment has been perceived as minimal among environmentalists, given that the bulbs reduce energy demand, and therefore reduce demand for the main source of mercury in the environment - burning coal in power plants.
That's true -- but only to an extent, according to a new study out of Yale University.
It turns out that the accumulation of mercury from discarded compact fluorescent light bulbs may cause more pollution in areas that get electricity from cleaner sources, like natural gas or renewable energy. In areas that rely on coal, CFLs are a net benefit, in terms of mercury pollution in the environment. In areas with cleaner-burning fuels or renewable technology in place, they may contribute more.
The take-home message: Be sure to recycle those bulbs. Bulbs tossed in the trash are most likely to be landfilled, where they could, over time, contaminate water supplies if landfill liners fail. Or, they could be incinerated, which would lead to the same problem produced by power plants: mercury rain, which accumulates in lakes and rivers and ultimately contaminates fish. That's how people are exposed to mercury primarily -- after it's accumulated in its toxic form in aquatic ecosystems, not from direct contact.
Here's another look at safe-handling tips and other information about the energy-efficient bulbs, put together earlier this year by our Tips Editor Brian Clark Howard:
1. Don't Over-Worry!
CFL bulbs contain up to 5 milligrams of mercury, which is quite a small amount. Compare that to older home thermostats and mercury fever thermometers, which contain from 500 to 3,000 milligrams.
Helen Suh MacIntosh, a professor in environmental health at Harvard University, points out that exposure to the mercury in a broken CFL is unlikely to cause any harm. She says it's unlikely all the bulb's mercury will vaporize into the air; even if that happens, the concentration would still likely be lower than OSHA safe standards for typical room environments.
2. Coal Plants Produce More Mercury
Forty percent of the mercury being released into our environment comes from coal-fired power plants. That means 13.6 milligrams of mercury is released in generating the power needed to light an incandescent bulb, whereas you only result in 3.3 milligrams to run CFLs. Mercury from power plants ends up accumulating in the water supply at high levels, and is biomagnified by predators, especially fish.
3. Choose New Low Mercury CFLs
New CFL bulbs are now available with reduced mercury content. For example, leading manufacturer Philips offers its Alto brand of CFL with 70% less mercury. An added benefit is that Alto bulbs last even longer than standard CFLs.
4. Safe Handling and Disposal
If a CFL does break, ventilate the room as much as possible, as rapidly as possible. Open windows and turn on fans. Do not handle the fragments with your bare hands or a vacuum cleaner, but attend to the mess immediately.
The EPA recommends picking up all the bulb fragments with paper towels (if you have disposable gloves, they certainly wouldn't hurt). Wipe the affected area clean, then place the fragments, towels and gloves in a sealed plastic bag. Take it to your local Household Hazardous Waste Collection Site.
5. Recycle Them!
In several states, tossing CFLs in the trash is against the law. However, enforcement is a problem, as are convenient collection locations. Still, the Journal pointed out that about 25% of all mercury-containing bulbs (including CFLs) get recycled at licensed facilities.
So what do you do with them? Most communities have a provision for collecting hazardous waste. Contact your local town hall, waste management or public works departments. Sometimes you can drop off items at a location any time, while in other communities there are designated days when they accept waste.
In some cases, it's even easier to recycle CFLs with Sylvania's RECYCLEPAK program. Order a consumer pak on Sylvania's website ($15, including shipping), fill up with about 12 burned out bulbs, attach the prepaid shipping label, and your retired CFLs will be responsibly recycled. Larger sizes and community packs also available.
Note that the recycling cost amounts to just about 1% of the total amount of money you'll spend on a bulb in its lifetime, since energy use is the lion's share.