Compact fluorescent light bulbs, long touted by environmentalists as a more efficient and longer-lasting alternative to the incandescent bulbs that have lighted homes for more than a century, are running into resistance from waste industry officials and some environmental scientists, who warn that the bulbs’ poisonous innards pose a bigger threat to health and the environment than previously thought.
Fluorescents — the squiggly, coiled bulbs that generate light by heating gases in a glass tube — are generally considered to use more than 50 percent less energy and to last several times longer than incandescent bulbs.
When fluorescent bulbs first hit store shelves several years ago, consumers complained about the loud noise they made, their harsh light, their bluish color, their clunky shape and the long time it took for them to warm up.
Since then, the bulbs — known as CFLs — have been revamped, and strict government guidelines have alleviated most of those problems. But while the bulbs are extremely energy-efficient, one problem hasn’t gone away: All CFLs contain mercury, a neurotoxin that can cause kidney and brain damage.
The amount is tiny — about 5 milligrams, or barely enough to cover the tip of a pen — but that is enough to contaminate up to 6,000 gallons of water beyond safe drinking levels, extrapolated from Stanford University research on mercury. Even the latest lamps promoted as “low-mercury” can contaminate more than 1,000 gallons of water beyond safe levels.
There is no disputing that overall, fluorescent bulbs save energy and reduce pollution in general. An average incandescent bulb lasts about 800 to 1,500 hours; a spiral fluorescent bulb can last as long as 10,000 hours. In just more than a year — since the beginning of 2007 — 9 million fluorescent bulbs have been purchased in California, preventing the release of 1.5 billion pounds of carbon dioxide compared with traditional bulbs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Using them actually reduces overall emissions to the environment, even though they contain minuscule amounts of mercury in themselves,” said Mark Kohorst, senior manager for environment, health and safety for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association.
Public, agencies ill-informed of risks
As long as the mercury is contained in the bulb, CFLs are perfectly safe. But eventually, any bulbs — even CFLs — break or burn out, and most consumers simply throw them out in the trash, said Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and editor of the journal Environmental Research.
“This is an enormous amount of mercury that’s going to enter the waste stream at present with no preparation for it,” she said.
Manufacturers and the EPA say broken CFLs should be handled carefully and recycled to limit dangerous vapors and the spread of mercury dust. But guidelines for how to do that can be difficult to find, as Brandy Bridges of Ellsworth, Maine, discovered.
“It was just a wiggly bulb that I reached up to change,” Bridges said. “When the bulb hit the floor, it shattered.”
When Bridges began calling around to local government agencies to find out what to do, “I was shocked to see how uninformed literally everyone I spoke to was,” she said. “Even our own poison control operator didn’t know what to tell me.”
The state eventually referred her to a private cleanup firm, which quoted a $2,000 estimate to contain the mercury. After Bridges complained publicly about her predicament, state officials changed their recommendation: Simply throw it in the trash, they said.
Break a bulb? Five steps for cleanup
That was the wrong answer, according to the EPA. It offers a detailed, 11-step procedure you should follow: Air out the room for a quarter of an hour. Wear gloves. Double-bag the refuse. Use duct tape to lift the residue from a carpet. Don’t use a vacuum cleaner, as that will only spread the problem. The next time you vacuum the area, immediately dispose of the vacuum bag.
In general, however, the EPA endorses the use of fluorescent bulbs, citing their energy savings. Silbergeld also does not discourage their use because of their energy savings, but she said the EPA could be sending mixed signals to confused consumers.
“It’s kind of ironic that on the one hand, the agency is saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s a very small amount of mercury.’ Then they have a whole page of [instructions] how to handle the situation if you break one,” she said.
Limited options for safe recycling
The disposal problem doesn’t end there. Ideally, broken bulbs and their remains should be recycled at a facility approved to handle fluorescent lamps, but such facilities are not common.
California is one of only seven states — Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin are the others — that ban disposing of fluorescent bulbs as general waste. And yet, qualified recycling facilities are limited to about one per county. In other states, collection of CFLs is conducted only at certain times of the year — twice annually in the District of Columbia, for example, and only once a year in most of Georgia.
In fact, qualified places to recycle CFLs are so few that the largest recycler of of fluorescent bulbs in America is Ikea, the furniture chain.
“I think there’s going to be hundreds of millions of [CFLs] in landfills all over the country,” said Leonard Worth, head of Fluorecycle Inc. of Ingleside, Ill., a certified facility.
Once in a landfill, bulbs are likely to shatter even if they’re packaged properly, said the Solid Waste Association of North America. From there, mercury can leach into soil and groundwater and its vapors can spread through the air, potentially exposing workers to toxic levels of the poison.
Industry working on safer bulbs
Kohorst, of the electrical manufacturers group, acknowledged that disposal was a complex problem. But he said fluorescent bulbs were so energy-efficient that it was worth the time and money needed to make them completely safe.
“These are a great product, and they’re going to continue solving our energy problems, and gradually we’re going to find a solution to their disposal, as well,” Kohorst said.
In the meantime, manufacturers of incandescent bulbs are not going down without a fight.
General Electric Corp., the world’s largest maker of traditional bulbs, said that by 2010, it hoped to have on the market a new high-efficiency incandescent bulb that will be four times as efficient as today’s 125-year-old technology. It said that such bulbs would closely rival fluorescent bulbs for efficiency, with no mercury.
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However, if the disposal problem is to be solved, speed would appear to be called for. Consumers bought more than 300 million CFLs last year, according to industry figures, but they may be simply trading one problem (low energy-efficiency) for another (hazardous materials by the millions of pounds going right into the earth).
“One lamp, so what? Ten lamps, so what? A million lamps, well that’s something,” said Worth of Fluorecycle.
“A hundred million lamps? Now, that’s a whole different ballgame.”