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Junk Science: Light Bulb Lunacy

How much money does it take to screw in a compact fluorescent lightbulb? About $4.28 for the bulb and labor — unless you break the bulb. Then you, like Brandy Bridges of Ellsworth, Maine, could be looking at a cost of about $2,004.28, which doesn’t include the costs of frayed nerves and risks to health.

Sound crazy? Perhaps no more than the stampede to ban the incandescent light bulb in favor of compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) — a move already either adopted or being considered in California, Canada, the European Union and Australia.

According to an April 12 article in The Ellsworth American, Bridges had the misfortune of breaking a CFL during installation in her daughter’s bedroom: It dropped and shattered on the carpeted floor.

Aware that CFLs contain potentially hazardous substances, Bridges called her local Home Depot for advice. The store told her that the CFL contained mercury and that she should call the Poison Control hotline, which in turn directed her to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The DEP sent a specialist to Bridges’ house to test for mercury contamination. The specialist found mercury levels in the bedroom in excess of six times the state’s “safe” level for mercury contamination of 300 billionths of a gram per cubic meter.

The DEP specialist recommended that Bridges call an environmental cleanup firm, which reportedly gave her a “low-ball” estimate of $2,000 to clean up the room. The room then was sealed off with plastic and Bridges began “gathering finances” to pay for the $2,000 cleaning. Reportedly, her insurance company wouldn’t cover the cleanup costs because mercury is a pollutant.

Given that the replacement of incandescent bulbs with CFLs in the average U.S. household is touted as saving as much as $180 annually in energy costs — and assuming that Bridges doesn’t break any more CFLs — it will take her more than 11 years to recoup the cleanup costs in the form of energy savings.

Even if you don’t go for the full-scale panic of the $2,000 cleanup, the do-it-yourself approach is still somewhat intense, if not downright alarming.

Consider the procedure offered by the Maine DEP’s Web page entitled, “What if I accidentally break a fluorescent bulb in my home?”

Don’t vacuum bulb debris because a standard vacuum will spread mercury-containing dust throughout the area and contaminate the vacuum. Ventilate the area and reduce the temperature. Wear protective equipment like goggles, coveralls and a dust mask.

Collect the waste material into an airtight container. Pat the area with the sticky side of tape. Wipe with a damp cloth. Finally, check with local authorities to see where hazardous waste may be properly disposed.

The only step the Maine DEP left off was the final one: Hope that you did a good enough cleanup so that you, your family and pets aren’t poisoned by any mercury inadvertently dispersed or missed.

This, of course, assumes that people are even aware that breaking CFLs entails special cleanup procedures.

The potentially hazardous CFL is being pushed by companies such as Wal-Mart, which wants to sell 100 million CFLs at five times the cost of incandescent bulbs during 2007, and, surprisingly, environmentalists.

It’s quite odd that environmentalists have embraced the CFL, which cannot now and will not in the foreseeable future be made without mercury. Given that there are about 4 billion lightbulb sockets in American households, we’re looking at the possibility of creating billions of hazardous waste sites such as the Bridges’ bedroom.

Usually, environmentalists want hazardous materials out of, not in, our homes.

These are the same people who go berserk at the thought of mercury being emitted from power plants and the presence of mercury in seafood. Environmentalists have whipped up so much fear of mercury among the public that many local governments have even launched mercury thermometer exchange programs.

As the activist group Environmental Defense urges us to buy CFLs, it defines mercury on a separate part of its Web site as a “highly toxic heavy metal that can cause brain damage and learning disabilities in fetuses and children” and as “one of the most poisonous forms of pollution.”

Greenpeace also recommends CFLs while simultaneously bemoaning contamination caused by a mercury thermometer factory in India. But where are mercury-containing CFLs made? Not in the U.S., under strict environmental regulation. CFLs are made in India and China, where environmental standards are virtually non-existent.

And let’s not forget about the regulatory nightmare known as the Superfund law, the EPA regulatory program best known for requiring expensive but often needless cleanup of toxic waste sites, along with endless litigation over such cleanups.

We’ll eventually be disposing billions and billions of CFL mercury bombs. Much of the mercury from discarded and/or broken CFLs is bound to make its way into the environment and give rise to Superfund liability, which in the past has needlessly disrupted many lives, cost tens of billions of dollars and sent many businesses into bankruptcy.

As each CFL contains 5 milligrams of mercury, at the Maine “safety” standard of 300 nanograms per cubic meter, it would take 16,667 cubic meters of soil to “safely” contain all the mercury in a single CFL. While CFL vendors and environmentalists tout the energy cost savings of CFLs, they conveniently omit the personal and societal costs of CFL disposal.

Not only are CFLs much more expensive than incandescent bulbs and emit light that many regard as inferior to incandescent bulbs, they pose a nightmare if they break and require special disposal procedures. Should government (egged on by environmentalists and the Wal-Marts of the world) impose on us such higher costs, denial of lighting choice, disposal hassles and breakage risks in the name of saving a few dollars every year on the electric bill?

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRWatch.com. He is a junk science expert, and advocate of free enterprise and an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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