Many environmentally conscious people think they are doing a great thing by using compact fluorescent light bulbs – CFLs. We see them advertised everywhere, even our most trusted environmental news sources tells us we should be using them. In the United States, production of traditional incandescent light bulbs will be phased out completely by the year 2012.
Unfortunately most people are unaware of and not many are talking about the fact that although CFL bulbs reduce energy and greenhouse gases, they put our health at an even greater risk than incandescent bulbs. They are energy efficient but not environmentally friendly.
Compact fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury. Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin that can cause serious damage to the all the tissues and organs in the body as well as the central nervous system and endocrine system and it disrupts functioning of crucial neurotransmitters in the brain. It is one of the most toxic substances on the planet and has been linked to a variety of serious health conditions like autism, memory problems, infertility, depression, thyroid disorders, alzheimers, adrenal disorders, anxiety, Parkinson’s and MS to name a few. It is especially toxic to children, pregnant women and small pets.
While the mercury is contained in the light bulb there is no risk, however if you drop the bulb on the floor of your home, then you are exposed to dangerous mercury vapors. Many are reporting that it is quite easy to break CFL light bulbs as you are screwing it in the socket. Additionally, when we toss them in the garbage and they are picked up by the garbage company, they are getting broken all over the city and in the landfills. This means that our air and soil is being contaminated with mercury across our cities.
In an interview with CNN, Ron Hui, a Hong Kong professor, chairman of the electronic engineering department and co-author of a recent peer reviewed publication on the environmental impact of CFLs, tells us that each bulb contains “3-5 milligrams of mercury. The safe intake of mercury for a human body is a few micrograms. One milligram is 1,000 micrograms.” However, other studies report that CFL bulbs may contain as much as 30 milligrams of mercury and estimate that they are releasing about two to four tons of mercury into our air each year.
Furthermore, Hui points out that no one wants to talk about the issue that the circuit board of the bulbs, which is where the mercury is implanted, can’t be recycled and there is nowhere for the toxins to go but our air and soil and we are creating a ticking time for our future generations.
The EPA claims that using compact fluorescent light bulbs leads to less mercury in our environment because they require less electricity and coal-fired power plants which are the main contributors to mercury emissions. However, that is preposterous. As professor Hui points out, we may be saving energy, have less greenhouse gases and mercury emitted during the process than we did in the creation of incandescent bulbs, but when manufacturing bulbs the mercury contamination is specific to the power plant itself. With CFL light bulbs, we have now brought the mercury into all our homes, city streets, soil and landfills.
Hui, also tells us that although we are under the impression that CFLs last longer than incandescent bulbs they are not as energy efficient as we have been led to believe because of a high failure rate within the electrolytic capacitor. However, the most scary piece of information to emerge from this interview is when Hui shares with us that the CFL is a very profitable business and manufacturers are not likely to pursue more environmentally friendly options, until the public becomes more aware and pressures the government to step in.
Even General Electric themselves have been quoted as admitting that the mercury in the bulbs may become a serious problem as sales of CFLs increase. Since it will soon be a mandatory practice, it is obvious we have a huge problem on the horizon.
In a recent study in the state of Maine, a number of clean up methods were tested after researches broke 65 compact fluorescent light bulbs and the air quality was found to contain up to 100 times the levels of mercury than is considered safe by federal guidelines.
In some cities and states, who are developing some awareness, it is illegal to put a CFL bulb into the garbage as they are considered to be hazardous waste. However many of them have not come up with other convenient options for disposal and thus most people continue to do so any ways. However, even if we do provide easy methods of disposal we are still left with the problem that the circuit board containing the mercury can’t be recycled so mercury waste is going to be accumulating somewhere regardless. Not only that, most people are not recyclers and many people could care less about the environment, even when it is illegal to do so, many people will not abide by the rules and they will end up in the garbage any ways. There is no way to contain this beast.
Some states are now publishing guidelines on how to reduce your risk for toxic exposure from a broken bulb. They tell us the following things
Guidelines for Cleaning Up Broken CFL Bulbs
Suggestions will vary depending on the source, but here are the most common.
- remove children, pregnant women and pets immediately
(they should not participate in or be present during the clean up process)
- ventilate the area well
- open a window and leave the room for at least 15 minutes
- wear gloves, a mask and safety glasses
- do not use a sweeper or a broom to clean it up
- do not turn on your heating or air conditioning system
- pick up big pieces with your fingers
- use sticky tape to get small pieces
- wipe the area with a wet rag
- place all broken materials collected as well as all materials used in the clean up process in a second sealed plastic bag (air tight) or a screw-top glass jar and remove them from the house.
- throw everything away that was used in the clean up process, including the rag and gloves.
- if the break occurs on a carpet, cut that piece of that carpet out and throw it away.
- wash your hands immediately
- call your local recycling center to see if they collect CFL bulbs, otherwise put it in the trash.
- as a preventative measure, it is suggested that compact fluorescent light bulbs should never be used in areas where there is carpeting or in sockets where a breakage is more likely to occur.
Wow, that’s quite a protocol and an awfully lot to go through just to reduce energy and greenhouse gases. It really makes no sense. Does this really sound like a product we want to be using? I don’t think so. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that we haven’t solved anything with CFL bulbs, we’ve only created an even bigger and more toxic monster.
There are a couple problems with the protective measures mentioned above even if you follow them perfectly.
- You have been exposed to mercury in the process of cleaning it up, so you have breathed in the vapor and absorbed it. So your health has been impacted by it at least to some degree.
- The mercury will not be gone completely. There will still be residue that will take time to break down and thus you will be exposed to mercury during this time period.
- Now for the average healthy adult, they may not see immediate consequences to their health with one broken bulb. However, if it occurs frequently, then it can accumulate in the body. On the other hand, for people with chemical sensitivities or chronic health conditions, they could have severe reactions and become quite ill for a long time with a single broken bulb.
Mercury is not the only problem with CFLs either. Other studies now tell us that they also expose us to dangerous electro magnetic pollution. Physicians report they are seeing an increase in migraines, headaches and severe skin rashes caused by compact fluorescent light bulbs.
So what should you do? Don’t use CFLs.
One alternative is to stock up on as many incandescent bulbs as you can so you have them in stock for the future, but another option is to use LED bulbs. EcoLEDs.com provides us with an environmentally friendly choice. They’re a little more expensive, but they are ten times more energy efficient than incandescent and three times more efficient than CFLs and they contain no mercury.
References and More in Depth Must Read Information on CFLs
Also be sure to pass the word and help others to become aware of the dangers of compact fluorescent light bulbs. The more aware people become, the quicker manufacturers will be in responding to demands for a safer, more environmentally friendly bulb.