WASHINGTON – Al Gore says switching from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents can help save the planet from global warming.
California, Canada and the European Union are so persuaded he’s right, the three governments are in the process of banning the sale of incandescent light bulbs, following the trailblazing paths of Fidel Castro in Cuba and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is on board, urging American citizens to do their part for the environment and switch to the twisty little CFL bulbs that last longer and use less electricity.
But opposition is building among other environmentalists who say the threat of mercury contamination as a result of hundreds of millions of broken CFLS, each containing about 5 milligrams of the highly toxic substance, outweighs any benefits from a switch from Thomas Edison’s trusty old invention.
One new voice weighing in against the tide is Andrew Michrowski of the Canadian-based Planetary Association for Clean Energy: “I feel it’s very important to warn people these ‘green’ bulbs contain mercury, which will end up in landfills throughout the country if we make the switch to them. In addition to filling our landfills with mercury, if the bulbs break you will be exposed to the mercury they contain.”
He says consumers shouldn’t buy them – even though they are now showing up in stores all over America.
Even the EPA, which is cheerleading the mania for the switch to CFLs, offers bone-chilling warnings about the dangers of mercury – if you search for them.
“Exposure to mercury, a toxic metal, can affect our brain, spinal cord, kidneys and liver,” says the agency.
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 never should 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.
When laws banning incandescent bulbs take effect, so do the mandatory fines on consumers and businesses that dispose of the new CFLs improperly.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health also offers cautions about mercury.
“Exposures to very small amounts of these compounds [mercury] can result in devastating neurological damage and death,” says NIH. “For fetuses, infants and children, the primary health effects of mercury are on neurological development. Even low levels of mercury exposure, such as result from a mother’s consumption of methyl mercury in dietary sources, can adversely affect the brain and nervous system. Impacts on memory, attention, language and other skills have been found in children exposed to moderate levels in the womb.”
However, critics are concerned that the EPA and environmentalists are minimizing the dangers of mercury contamination from CFLs. Mercury, an essential component of CFLs, is a neurotoxin that the EPA classifies as a hazardous household material.
The craze to get consumers to buy CFLs, instead of the old incandescents, precedes any serious plans for disposal or recycling of the broken or unbroken fluorescents.
A major debate has erupted among architects about the pros and cons of CFLs, with many “now calling for lower mercury in lighting systems,” says Michael Driedger, a Vancouver-based architect specializing in green technologies.
“Many people, especially in the lighting industry, are waiting for the lighting industry to develop mercury-free light emitting diode (LED) lighting as a safe substitute for CFLs,” he says.