WASHINGTON – As state and foreign governments enact forced phase-outs of incandescent light bulbs, consumers are being kept in the dark about the many downsides of compact fluorescent lamps, replacements being billed as an environmental and energy-savings panacea.
Across the U.S., schoolchildren are being urged to replace incandescent light bulbs in their homes, state legislatures are following the leads of foreign governments in banning the sale of the bulbs in the future and the federal Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency are highly recommending the switch to CFLs. Businesses like Wal-Mart are also pushing CFLs hard, as are environmental groups. But safe disposal plans and recycling centers for the mercury-laden compact fluorescent lamps, seen as the future, lag behind the hype.
So, too, does the truth about what will become mandatory, fine-imposed handling requirements for CFLs by homeowners and businesses.
While CFLs arguably use less energy and last longer than incandescents, there is one serious environmental drawback – the presence of small amounts of highly toxic mercury in each and every bulb. This poses problems for consumers when breakage occurs and for disposal when bulbs eventually do burn out.
Most consumers, even those already using the CFLs, do not realize the long-term dangers the bulbs pose to the environment and the health of human beings.
While the EPA is on the CFL bandwagon as a means of reducing carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere, which it believes contributes to global warming, it also quietly offers advice on cleanup of broken bulbs that might give consumers pause to consider dumping those incandescents any time soon.
When a CFL breaks, the EPA cautions consumers to open a window and leave the room immediately for at least 15 minutes because of the mercury threat. The agency suggests removing all materials by scooping fragments and powder using cardboard or stiff paper. Sticky tape is suggested as a way to get smaller particles. The EPA says vacuum cleaners and bare hands should never be used in such cleanups.
After final cleanup with a damp paper towel, the agency warns consumers to place all materials in a plastic bag.
“Seal and dispose of properly,” says the EPA. “Wash hands.”
But disposing of properly might be a tough thing to do, because CFLs should never be thrown in the trash like their old-fashioned incandescent predecessors. They need to be turned into recycling centers, which are few and far between.
Incandescent light bulb
When laws banning incandescent bulbs take effect, so do the mandatory fines on consumers and businesses that dispose of the new CFLs improperly.
Though the amount of mercury in each bulb is small – about 4 milligrams – the potential environmental hazard created by the mass introduction of billions of CFLs with few disposal sites and a public unfamiliar with the risks is great.
To address the concern, Wal-Mart announced earlier this month that its suppliers – mainly in China – have agreed to reduce the amount of mercury in the bulbs. Yet the announcement itself came as something of a shock to many consumers who were blindsided about the risks of mercury.
Mercury is probably best-known for its effects on the nervous system. It can also damage the kidneys and liver, and in sufficient quantities can cause death.
With an estimated 150 million CFLs sold in the United States in 2006 and with Wal-Mart alone projecting sales of 100 million this year, some scientists and environmentalists are worried far too many will wind up in garbage dumps.
When sufficient mercury accumulates in a landfill, it can be emitted into the air and water in the form of vaporous methyl-mercury. From there, it can easily get into the food chain.
“Disposal of any mercury-contaminated material in landfills is absolutely alarming to me,” says Steve Lindberg, emeritus fellow of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The answer, of course, would be recycling and disposal centers. However, it is questionable whether consumers can be counted upon to bring their burned out and broken bulbs to special collection centers voluntarily. That’s why most of the laws banning incandescents also include fines for improper disposal of CFLs.
Many waste centers that are set up to accept CFL recycling currently have only one collection day per year.
Consumers are discovering other downsides of CFLs besides convenience and safety issues:
Most do not work with dimmer switches
They are available in only a few sizes
Some emit a bluish light
Some people say they get headaches while working or reading under them
They cannot be used in recessed lighting enclosures or enclosed globes
Fires are seen as a slight possibility
When CFLs do burn out, they often create some smoke, which consumers have found alarming. This is a result of the plastic on the bulb’s ballast melting and turning black. CFL manufacturers dismiss safety concerns.
Despite the drawbacks, Australia, Canada and the European Union have all moved to ban incandescent bulbs. California, Connecticut, North Carolina and Rhode Island, are all in the process of legislating an end to Edison’s greatest invention. Even local towns and cities are getting into the act.
But the craze didn’t start in Europe of Australia or Canada. It started in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. His action in banning the incandescent bulb was followed up quickly by Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Only then did the trend continue in the industrialized western nations.
Recycling experts say the solutions are at least five years away. Meanwhile, millions of consumers and green activists are being persuaded to make the switch now.
Governments may indeed be promoting a kind of lighting that is itself nearly obsolete. Fluorescent lights are nothing new. They’ve been around for a long time. And while they may save money, some say the public hasn’t chosen them for good reasons – including, but not limited to, the mercury issue.
Some experts predict the next generation of lighting, though, is LED lights. They are made from semiconductor materials that emit light when an electrical current flows through them. When this form of light takes over, all bulbs will be obsolete. Your wall tiles can light up. Curtains and drapes can light up. Even your dining room table could be made to light up – at exactly the level you want. And the best news is – no toxic waste.
That’s what is ahead in the next decade, according to some in the industry.
Nobody promoted CFLs as aggressively as IKEA. Not only does the retailer sell them, it also provides one of the very few recycling centers for the burned out bulbs. But even with a plethora of recycling centers, how will the public view the prospect of saving up dead bulbs and transporting them to recycling centers? And how about the danger of breakage in that process?
“The industry is currently aiming at totally mercury-free CFL lighting, but this is still five to 10 years away,” admits IKEA.
Those who really care about this problem right now are those involved in the waste industry.
“Most agree more energy-efficient light bulbs can significantly curb air pollution, but fewer people are talking about how to deal with them at the end of their lives,” explained a page 1 story in the April 2 issue of Waste News. It goes on to explain “there is no plan to address air and water pollution concerns that could develop if consumers improperly dispose of the mercury-containing devices.”
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