1st posted 6/20/11
I had no idea light bulbs were about to be discontinued until I read an article in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago about people who were stock-piling them. I had no idea that the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 phases out incandescent light bulbs, that would be the normal ones, the ones we’re using right now, by 2012-2014. What is being touted as a superior and green replacement to normal light bulbs is something called compact fluorescent lamps or CFL’s. CFL’s are those squiggly light bulbs; you’ve seen them, you may have even bought them only to discover that the light is similar to the light found in hospitals, mental institutions, prisons, school cafeterias, and airless offices filled with tiny cubicles. This is one of the reasons why people are stockpiling light bulbs, because the light that comes off the CFL‘s is flat out ugly.
I had my first run-in with CFL’s a few years ago. I was at Home Depot with my friend Lori loading up on cleaning supplies and light bulbs. When I saw the squiggly bulb I said, “isn’t this the bulb Al Gore is pushing.” Lori took the box from my hand and read the side. “It’s got mercury in it,” she said, “I got three kids, I can’t have these in my house.” I had no children at home but I wasn’t willing to have a bulb with mercury in it in my postage stamp of an apartment either. I’m an excitable woman and when I get excited I get clumsy and knock things over. Plus, I have a cat the size and girth of a small, chunky toddler who lives to knock things over and what would happen if the bulb broke? Needless to say when I read that I was now going to be forced to buy CFL’s all I could think about was the mercury; surely someone, somewhere, was talking about the mercury AND the aesthetics. It was time to start googling.
I found “The Facts on Compact Florescent Light Bulbs,” on the Consumer Reports website but it did little to dispel my my-this-is-gardisil- all-over-again feelings. Broken down into one sentence myth (what they refer to as a “common misconception“) and reality (several phrases of cool, blue reason), I skimmed down to the myth/misconception, “CFL’s contain a lot of mercury.” The reality answer, “each bulb has a tiny fraction of the mercury in the traditional fever thermometer. Energy Star CFL’s require 5 milligrams or less for bulbs that use less than 25 watts. Our testing has show that some have close to 1 milligram.”
My first response was, I don’t care how small the numbers are, I still don’t want it in my house. Then I thought, nobody uses mercury thermometers anymore, even hospitals; then I decided to find out how much mercury was actually in a mercury thermometer. Along the way I bumped into an article by Peter Gwynne at MSNBC, updated 2/28/2011. According to the article the mercury thermometer is being discontinued because…….
“Mercury released into the environment from a broken thermometer is highly poisonous. Pure mercury and its compounds can cause neurological problems and other ailments in people exposed to them…”
“Federal and State authorities have lobbied since 2002 for bans on medical mercury thermometers. It’s almost impossible to buy one for home use….”
“We’ve been working with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and state agencies to help phase out the whole process of using mercury thermometers,” said Gregory Strouse, leader of NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) temperature and humidity group…..Anything you can do to prevent mercury getting into the environment is a good thing.”
So the EPA and NIST all agree that “anything you can do to prevent mercury from getting into the environment is a good thing,“ at the same time we have a new light bulb we are going to be forced to buy that has mercury in it. The mind bobbles. In a typical, mercury fever thermometer there is 0.5 to 3 grams of mercury; 1000 milligrams equals 1 gram. There’s 5 milligrams or less of mercury in a CFL that is the equivalent of a 25 watt bulb. Does the amount of mercury increase as the wattage or lumen (CFL speak for wattage) increases? Why aren’t they telling me how much mercury is in the higher lumen? The closest answer I could find was that Earthmate makes CFL’s with 75% less mercury than all the rest of the CFL‘s. Earthmate also provides a recycling box with your purchase; you fill the box with your used bulbs and when it’s fully loaded you go to your local post office and mail it back to the company for recycling. Of course it’s safe, nothing ever breaks in the mail. I looked up the damage that 5 milligrams of mercury could do. According to the EPA, 5 milligrams is enough to contaminate 6,000 gallons of drinking water. If 5 milligrams can contaminate 6,000 gallons of drinking water what happens when the CFL containing 5 milligrams of mercury breaks in your house?
Well according to Consumer Reports, the idea that “you need to put on a hazmat suit if you drop one of these bulbs,” is yet another myth/misconception. Their reality answer – “Exposure to broken CFL’s can pose a health risk, especially to a fetus or a young child. But don’t panic. Open a window, shut off central A/C or forced air heating, and clear the room for at least 15 minutes as the Environmental Protection Agency recommends. Read “What to do if a Compact Fluorescent Lightbulb Breaks” for more details. And be sure to keep CFL’s out of lamps that could easily tip, especially in rooms used often by children or pregnant women.”
When I finished reading the above I felt a lot like I do after I watch an ad for a new drug on T.V. You know the ones, the bleak “before” image, the shiny-happy-people-on- the-drug-after image, and the soothing female voice sound tracked under the shiny happy people listing the possible, horrific side effects. The reason the possible, horrific side effects are listed is to prevent lawsuits against the drug manufacturer and prescribing doctor in case you, as the patient, end up blind, brain dead, homicidal, and/or suicidal, etc. It was a chance you took you see because you knew of the drug’s possible side effects.
I googled around and most of the green sites are in agreement that the amount of mercury spilled “probably isn’t going to “hurt you,” and/or “relatively harmless.” No where did I read that spilled mercury from a CFL will categorically not harm you in any way. I did read that the mercury from a broken CFL vaporizes immediately which is why you want to open a window because it is much more dangerous to breathe mercury then to say eat it. I also found a ten step process for clean-up on the New York State Department of Health web site (which I have cut and pasted at the end of this article) that makes me wonder how a tiny bit of spilled mercury can be “relatively harmless,” when the clean-up is so detailed, time consuming, and over the top, it would give a Virgo a migraine. I suspect that CFL manufacturers have taken a page from the pharmaceutical companies (“we never said the mercury in a broke CFL couldn’t hurt you, we said it probably wouldn’t…”) to protect themselves just in case the tiny bit of mercury we’re being told is so harmless, is in fact quite harmful.
I’ve never much worried about what happens to my recyclables once I’ve tossed them in their appropriate bins. Given the ten step program I’d need to follow if I broke a CFL, and the necessary accoutrements I would need to accomplish the clean-up, clearly recycling was going to take on a whole new dimension in my life. Yet according to Consumer Reports, another myth/common misconception about CFL’s is that “finding a recycler is hard.” Their reality answer, “you can’t throw CFL’s away in regular trash but Home Depot, Ikea, and some Ace and True Value stores accept unbroken CFL’s no matter where you bought them. Walmart sells the most CFL‘s. A spokeswoman told us the chain was looking into a recycling program, but didn’t have one as we went to press.” Ah yes Walmart, that bastion of humanity famous for the night lock-ins of its employees. I feel much better knowing that Walmart is on this.
I put some thought into how I’d actually recycle a CFL. First off I’d have to swaddle a burned out bulb just to transfer it so it wouldn’t break. Then I’d have to store it somewhere till I had enough burned-out CFL’s to justify the cost of gas to get me to Home Depot or Ikea. Then I’d have to take time off from work, or my only Saturday of freedom, to go there because you know you’re going to have to wait on line to recycle because there’s no way you can just toss a mercury filled bulb into a bin, swaddled or not. I wondered if, “hi I’m swaddling my bulbs can’t talk now,” or “I’m on-line to recycle my bulbs, see you in four hours,” was going to become a part of the cultural lexicon. I wondered if the Container Store would come up with a mercury impervious storage trunk for used CFL’s and how many enterprising college students and/or immigrants would start a business that, for a reasonable fee, would take your bulbs for recycling to Ikea and Home Depot. I also wondered how many lawsuits would be filed against several of those businesses after an FBI sting operation revealed that they were not actually recycling but tossing mercury filled CFL’s in the river. Needless to say those lawsuits would begat a new government agency responsible for licensing and overseeing the CFL recycling business. The fee would be astronomical, the waiting period for the license would take over a year, and small legit recycling businesses wouldn’t be able to survive. The corporations making the CFL’s would be able to afford the fees but they make clear to the new government agency that if they are going to take over the recycling they’re going to need a tax break and clearly a recycling fee would have to be added to the purchase price of the already expensive CFL. They also want legal protection from any issues that might arise because of the mercury. Taking a page from Nestle’s book they have sold defective CFL’s to the third world. The glass tubing that contains the mercury is too thin and the poisonous vapor from the heated mercury leaks through.
Stop now Kat, I think, but it’s hard to.
The EPA claims that “in this country alone, more than a billion curly light bulbs are thrown in the garbage every year.” For argument’s sake let’s say all the CFL’s tossed in the trash last year were the equivalent of a 25 watt bulb, meaning they contain 5 milligrams of mercury. So I am going to multiply one billion (the number of CFL’s thrown away) by 5 (the number of milligrams of mercury in the CFL). That’s 5 billion milligrams of mercury that is being dumped into landfills and rivers which is the equivalent of 5 million grams or 5 thousand kilograms. One thousand kilograms equals one ton; so five thousand tons of mercury have ended up in the waste stream because of improperly disposed of CFL’s. The average wattage used in American homes is 60 watts but I can‘t find any statistics for the amount of mercury in the CFL equivalent so this general-idea-equation is working with a smaller amount of mercury than was probably disposed of.
So why CFL’s? What’s the point? The party line is that if we swap our bulbs out for CFL’s, we will offset the mercury emissions that are released into the environment by factories where coal is burnt to produce electricity. Burning coal releases mercury; 40% of mercury emissions come from coal-burning power plants. So if we use less electricity we are going to burn less coal. I am told I can reduce mercury emissions from coal-powered power plants by 30 milligrams, even up 52 milligrams, if I swap out one 100 watt bulb with a CFL. What I am supposed to believe is that the amount of mercury in the CFL is worth the 30 to 52 milligrams of mercury that will not be going into the environment. What I am supposed to believe is if one billion people swap out one 100 watt lightbulb for a CFL, theoretically we would be saving (on the high end) 52 billion milligrams of mercury from entering into the environment. 52 billion milligrams of mercury is the equivalent of 5 tons and change, which is about the same amount of mercury that ended up in the waste stream last year from improperly disposed of CFL’s.
The head of the EPA concedes “that not enough has been done to urge people to recycle CFL bulbs and make it easier for them to do so.” John Skinner, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North American, the trade group for people who handle trash and recycling says, “the problem with the bulbs is that they’ll break before they get to the landfill. They’ll break in containers, or they’ll break in a dumpster or they’ll break in the trucks. Workers may be exposed to very high level of mercury when that happens.” Even the pcp’s-in-the Hudson-planting General Electric admits that the little bit of mercury in each bulb could become a real problem if sales balloon as expected. (Uh, the incandescent bulb is being discontinued how could sales not balloon??) Earl Jones, senior counsel for General Electric, said, “given what we anticipate to be the significant increase in the use of these products, we are now beginning to look at, and shortly we’ll be discussing with legislators, possibly a national solution here.” Oh dear, here comes that new government agency responsible for licensing and overseeing the CFL recycling business and a new tax for the people and yet another tax reduction for the corporations.
Already I’m reading that the kind of mercury in the CFL is going to be replaced with a safer mercury, that CFL’s themselves are going to be replaced with LED’s, that the squiggly CFL is being encased in a bulb of glass to make it less frightening to consumers, and that CFL light is no longer institutional and just like “soft white,” rebuttals all to the criticisms of CFL’s that are growing daily. The spin is it’s green, the spin is it will save us money. In my mind CFL’s are about as green as nuclear power. As for the money that CFL’s are supposed to save me…according to U.S. department of Energy estimates CFL’s could save U.S. households $6 billion in energy costs in 2015. According to answers.com at Wikipedia, as of 2010 there were 114,825,428 households in the United States; so I decided to divide $6 billion by the current number of households in the United States just to get a rough and approximate idea of what kind of individual savings we’re talking about. The answer is 52.2532344, or approximately $53 per year per household, which will just about cover the cost of gas to get to Home Depot and Ikea for recycling or what I am going to have to pay for the new CFL’s. I could not find any mention of the astronomical profits to be made off the discontinuance and replacement of a product that everybody needs.
Live loud, love fierce, and suffer no fools, Kat
How to Clean up a Small Mercury Spill cut and pasted from the New York State Department of Health Web Site.
1. Prior to cleanup, remove metal items like jewelry and watches since they can be permanently damaged by mercury. Put on old clothes, old shoes and latex or vinyl gloves. Put a clean change of clothes and shoes along with a clean trash bag in a safe place outside the contaminated area. You will change out of your old clothes and shoes and put them in the trash bag at the end of the cleanup.
2. Identify items in the spill area that can be cleaned and those that cannot. Non-porous surfaces (finished wood, plastic or concrete) can be cleaned following this guidance. Porous surfaces or fabric-covered items (upholstery, carpeting, stuffed animals, pillows, backpacks, unfinished wood, cork, cardboard) are difficult to clean because mercury beads may be trapped in these materials. If you decide you cannot clean these items, place them in plastic trash bags or cover or wrap them in a double layer of plastic and carefully seal with tape. Place the wrapped items in a secure place,
3. Wear gloves to carefully pick up the larger pieces of broken glass and what remains of the broken device and place them on a paper towel. Gently fold the paper towel around these pieces so you can pick the bundle up and place it in a zipper-type plastic bag. Use index cards or stiff cardboard to push smaller pieces of glass and mercury beads together into a pile. Shine a flashlight at an angle to locate beads of mercury. The beads will reflect light from the flashlight. Check for mercury in cracks or in hard-to-reach areas where beads may be hidden or trapped. Check a wide area beyond the spill.
4. Use the eyedropper to collect mercury beads and place them in the plastic bag. Hold the eyedropper at an angle to draw the mercury into the tip. Keep the eyedropper at an angle to stop the mercury from rolling back out until you can put the mercury into the plastic bag. Wrap tape (sticky side out) around your gloved fingers and carefully use it to pick up any remaining glass or beads. Check again with the flashlight to be sure that no beads of mercury remain.
5. At this point, mercury beads may still be trapped in cracks or crevices on irregular surfaces. Sprinkle sulfur powder over the contaminated area and rub it gently all over the surface and into the cracks with a paper towel. Sulfur powder binds with mercury. Use a paper towel dampened with water followed by wiping with another damp paper towel to clean up the sulfur and mercury. Place the used paper towels in a zipper-type plastic bag.
6. Put all the items that were used to pick up the mercury, including index cards or cardboard, eyedropper, contaminated tape, paper towels, and zipper-type bags into the trash bag. Carefully remove rubber gloves by grabbing them at the wrist and pulling them inside out as they come off.
Place the used gloves in the trash bag.
7. Carefully seal the trash bag that contains the mercury contaminated waste and put it in a secure place, preferable outdoors and out of reach of children and pets until it can be disposed of safely.
8. If possible, open a window and use a fan to ventilate the area to the outdoors for 24-48 hours before resuming normal use. If possible, heat the area (for example, with a space heater) while still ventilating to the outdoors. Avoid blowing the exhaust back indoors or into other nearby residences.
9. Clothes or shoes that did not come in direct contact with liquid mercury should be removed and put into the trash bag that was left outside the contaminated area at the beginning of the cleanup. Close the trash bag and take it outdoors. Carefully remove the shoes and or clothing from the trash bag and air them out thoroughly outdoors for 24 to 48 hours. After the outdoor airing, items that are washable can then be laundered.
10. Dispose of contaminated items properly! Mercury-contaminated items should not be placed in the regular household trash. New York State Rules and Regulations control the disposal of mercury-containing items and waste. Contact your town or county officials for information about hazardous waste disposal in your community. Contact New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Waste Determination and Analysis Section at (518) 402-8633 for information about the Rules and Regulations.
Posted by Kat at 3:34 PM