Mr. Green is busy on his world-wide publicity tour for his new book. In the meantime, here's a Mr. Green classic column from August 2007.
Hey Mr. Green,
My whole family had embraced the concept of compact fluorescent bulbs (because they are so efficient), but a negative report from Fox News about their mercury hazards has us a little confused. Can you respond to our concern? --Carl in Center Moriches, New York
Thank you for calling my attention to this hatchet job, which I never would have noticed because I try to avoid the right-wing contrivances that Fox peddles as fair and balanced.
The people at Fox News are either brain-damaged from huffing mercury (they do seem to have a fondness for the highly toxic) or they have unscrupulously cherry-picked their facts. (In their sniping about the rules to replace incandescents with compact fluorescents [CFLs] "either adopted or being considered in California, Canada, the European Union and Australia," it's surprising that they overlooked the bulb-replacement programs in Cuba and Venezuela. That would've given them a fine opportunity to present compact fluorescent bulbs as part of a communist takeover.)
This classic example of enviro-bashing is full of flaws. First, the Fox writer trots out one report of one environmental bureaucrat's overreaction to a bulb breakage to make it sound like a busted CFL will turn a house into a Superfund site. The fact is, CFLs do contain mercury, but nowhere near enough to provoke panic or evacuation. If you break a bulb, you can do the cleanup yourself, without renting a moon suit or contacting authorities.
The EPA advises the following treatment:
- Open a window and leave the room for at least 15 minutes (to let the mercury vaporize).
- Remove all materials (i.e., the pieces of the broken bulb) without using a vacuum cleaner. You don't want even a small amount of mercury lurking in your vacuum. To do so:
- Wear disposable rubber gloves, if available. (Never touch the bulb pieces with your bare hands.)
- Carefully scoop up the fragments and powder with stiff paper or cardboard (you don't want the stuff to get on your broom or dustpan either).
- Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or disposable wet wipe. Sticky tape, such as duct tape (yet another use for the versatile material!), can be used to pick up small pieces and powder.
- Place all cleanup materials in a plastic bag and seal it. If your state permits you to put used or broken CFLs in the garbage, seal the CFL in two plastic bags and put into the outside trash (if no other disposal or recycling options are available). If your state doesn't allow this, consult the local hazardous-waste authority for safe-recycling information. Some hardware stores will also accept old bulbs; to find a recycler near you, try Earth 911, or (800) CLEAN-UP, for a location near you.
- Wash your hands after disposing of the bag.
- The first time you vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag once done cleaning the area (or empty and wipe the canister) and put the bag and/or vacuum debris, as well as the cleaning materials, in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or protected outdoor location for normal disposal.
So much for that part of Fox's story, but I'm not quite done with calling them on their hokum. So read on, if you wish. The Fox piece chides environmentalists for contradicting themselves by promoting fluorescent lightbulbs while having "whipped up so much fear of mercury among the public that many local governments have even launched mercury thermometer exchange programs" and going "berserk at the thought of mercury being emitted from power plants."
Yes, as Fox notes, a fluorescent bulb contains around 5 milligrams of mercury (although some brands, such as Philips Lighting, claim their bulbs have as little as 1.23 to 3 milligrams). What Fox conveniently doesn't bother to mention is that a thermometer can contain 140 times as much mercury as a fluorescent lightbulb, making concern about these instruments eminently reasonable. Nor is it exactly going "berserk" to worry about mercury from power plants. Coal-burning power plants emit 50 tons of the stuff every year, around 40 percent of the total mercury emissions in the United States.
Since residential lighting accounts for about 5.7 percent of our total national electricity consumption--about half of which is generated by coal--creating power for home lighting releases about 1.4 tons of mercury every year. And since incandescent bulbs account for about 88 percent of all bulbs, they are responsible for emitting around 1.2 tons of mercury a year.
Let's imagine for a moment that all 4 billion residential lightbulbs have become CFLs, each one with an average life span of 5.5 years (the minimum for EPA-approved bulbs). That means we'd have to change about 727 million fluorescent bulbs a year. At five milligrams of mercury per bulb, that adds up to about four tons of mercury. Since fluorescents use only 25 percent as much energy as incandescents, installing them in all houses would decrease mercury emissions from power plants by 0.9 tons a year.
So even in the incredibly unlikely scenario that every single dead bulb were smashed, and its contents released into the environment, switching to CFLs would yield a maximum 3.1 tons of mercury each year--the 4 tons in them minus the 0.9 tons of emissions they offset. (If all bulbs used were the longer-lived models, with a life span of nine years, the net emission would drop to 1.9 tons annually even if not a single bulb got recycled. And as lower-mercury bulbs came online, the net release would drop even more.)
Fox simply ignores the fact that people don't have to throw away all those burned-out fluorescents in the first place. About 25 percent are already being recycled, just because the government requires businesses to do so. If consumers were better educated about compact fluorescents, they would recycle more of them, as they have learned to do with other materials. If we created an economic incentive--a stiff deposit on CFLs, for example--recycling rates would vastly increase, just as they have with cans and bottles in states where container deposits are required.
Of course, by focusing on mercury, Fox also fails to note that even the shorter-lived fluorescents would eliminate about 100 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants alone, and an equivalent amount of other pollutants. That's something to weigh heavily even against the heavy metal mercury.