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Junk Science: Looming Lightbulb Liability

The speeding freight train carrying toxic waste liability for makers, sellers and purchasers of compact fluorescent lightbulbs, or CFLs, was only faintly audible in the distance last spring when this column first warned of it. Now we’re beginning to see that environmentalist-stoked train speed toward its victims, whom President Bush and Congress just finished tying to the tracks.

CFLs and all other fluorescent lightbulbs require special clean-up and disposal procedures because they contain small amounts of mercury, which is neurotoxic at sufficiently high exposures. For example, you’re not supposed to vacuum breakage or toss used bulbs in household trash.

Despite these clean-up and disposal hassles, environmental groups, bulb makers and retailers relentlessly have promoted CFL use as a strategy for reducing electricity consumption and the power plant emissions allegedly causing global warming.

Eco-activist groups, such as Environmental Defense, which historically have agitated to banish toxic substances from homes, workplaces and the environment, surprisingly have said that the mercury in CFLs is nothing to worry about.

But this new posturing flies in the face of the multitude of scary activist-inspired studies that hyperventilate about potential health risks from the slightest exposures to mercury, not to mention a 1987 article in Pediatrics reporting real-life mercury poisoning of a 23-month old from a broken fluorescent light bulb.

Bush and Congress joined the CFL promotion racket, too. The energy bill enacted last December mandates that traditional incandescent bulbs be phased out starting in 2012. CFLs pretty much are the only alternative.

This activist-business-government marketing juggernaut has succeeded. Wal-Mart alone sold 100 million CFLs last year.

But the partnership is about to implode. As predictable as Lucy pulling away the football from a determinedly charging Charlie Brown, the environmentalists are preparing to turn the tables on the CFL businesses and consumers.

The signal came in a Feb. 17 New York Times editorial entitled "That Newfangled Light Bulb."

The editorial read, in part, "Across the world, consumers are being urged to … switch to [CFLs]. ... Now the question is how to dispose of [CFLs] once they break or quit working … each [CFL] has a tiny bit of a dangerous toxin … almost 300 million CFLs were sold in the U.S. last year. That is already a lot of mercury to throw in the trash and the amounts will grow ever larger in coming years … the dangers are real and growing."

The Times piece continued, "Businesses and government recyclers need to start working on more efficient ways to deal with that added mercury. Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is raising the cry about the moment when millions of these light bulbs start landing in landfills or incinerators all at once. The pig in the waste pipeline, she calls it."

Aside from the editorial’s implicit targeting instructions for eco-agitators and trial lawyers, I could only chuckle at the editorial’s nod to, and partial disclosure about, Silbergeld. For many years, she was a "senior scientist" with Environmental Defense who, before moving on to left-wing academia, excelled at fomenting dubious scares about "toxic" substances in the environment.

During Silbergeld’s days with Environmental Defense in the 1990s, the group’s pitch to the media was "when fluorescent bulbs are crushed, traces of mercury vaporize and enter the atmosphere. If the lamps are buried, the toxic element seeps into the soil."

Until the Times editorial, the activists and the media had been holding back their customary attacks against mercury-containing fluorescent light bulbs.

In lamenting the bulbs, Clean Water Action told the media in 1997, for example, that the mercury level in tuna is so high that a 35-pound child eating more than 2 ounces a week would exceed the EPA’s "safe" level.

But while CFL-mandating legislation was pending in Congress, the enviros did a temporary flip-flop: Environmental Defense began pooh-poohing mercury concerns stating, "In short, the exposure from breaking a CFL is in about the same range as the exposure from eating a can or two of tuna fish."

Two ounces of tuna used to be a horror, but in the name of CFLs, two cans became no problem.

The Associated Press reported in 1992 that fluorescent light bulbs were helping to "poison the Everglades with toxic mercury, threatening humans [and wildlife]."

In December 2000, a Massachusetts newspaper reported in an article entitled "Environmentalists Call for Mercury Product Ban" that the Massachusetts governor had proposed that trash-burning incinerators develop plans to separate fluorescent light bulbs and other mercury-containing consumer products from waste.

The business fantasy is for the nation’s 4 billion-plus light sockets to sport CFLs. There’s much more ka-ching in selling 4 billion $5 light bulbs as opposed to incandescent bulbs costing $0.75. But what about the mercury problem that may impose substantial liabilities on businesses and consumers faster than CFL light bulbs turn on?

Today’s business leaders apparently have forgotten the infamous Superfund program that needlessly and retroactively imposed tens of billions of dollars of costs for pre-1980 waste disposal practices regardless of whether they were legal at the time. CFL-maker GE, in particular, is involved in a senseless $500 million clean-up of industrial chemicals known as PCBs buried long ago in Hudson River sediments.

Imagine the clean-up costs from billions of CFLs disposed in landfills and burned in incinerators across the country. Superfund even imposed bankrupting liability on mom-and-pop businesses. Imagine the peril of home-based businesses that casually toss CFLs in the household trash.

First mercury was dangerous. Then, temporarily, it became no big deal. Now that the Greens have caught us in the CFL trap, they’re reverting to form on mercury — all to cause the sort of chaos resulting in increased government control of our lives.

As Johnny Cash sang, "I hear the train a-comin’, it’s rollin’ round the bend. …" The question is: Will President Bush and Congress just leave us on the tracks?

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