Peruse any blog post, chat room or letters to the editor section on compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), and you'll notice a lot of anxiety out there over the fact that the high efficiency bulbs contain mercury. Most people know mercury is a potent toxin, so the concern is justified.
A recent Wall Street Journal article fans the flames, with a major story called "The Dark Side of 'Green' Bulbs," complete with a colorful illustration of a swirly bulb fashioned into a menacing skull and crossbones. The Journal points out that nearly 300 million CFLs were sold in the U.S. in 2007, up from 100 million two years prior.
CFLs pack many eco benefits, including the facts that they last for several years, don't introduce heat into their surroundings and use about 75% less electricity, meaning their slightly higher cost is offset in months. There are also many new and improved colors, shapes and sizes, including dimmable models, candelabra, post, flood and globe sizes and even anti-bug versions. View 10 great new CFLs here.
But what to do about the mercury?
1. Don't Over-Worry!
CFL bulbs contain up to 5 milligrams of mercury, which is quite a small amount. Compare that to older home thermostats and mercury fever thermometers, which contain from 500 to 3,000 milligrams.
Helen Suh MacIntosh, a professor in environmental health at Harvard University, points out that exposure to the mercury in a broken CFL is unlikely to cause any harm. She says it's unlikely all the bulb's mercury will vaporize into the air; even if that happens, the concentration would still likely be lower than OSHA safe standards for typical room environments.
2. Coal Plants Produce Much More Mercury
Forty percent of the mercury being released into our environment comes from coal-fired power plants. That means 13.6 milligrams of mercury is released in generating the power needed to light an incandescent bulb, whereas you only result in 3.3 milligrams to run CFLs. Mercury from power plants ends up accumulating in the water supply at high levels, and is biomagnified by predators, especially fish.
3. Choose New Low Mercury CFLs
New CFL bulbs are now available with reduced mercury content. For example, leading manufacturer Philips offers its Alto brand of CFL with 70% less mercury. An added benefit is that Alto bulbs last even longer than standard CFLs.
4. Safe Handling and Disposal
If a CFL does break, ventilate the room as much as possible, as rapidly as possible. Open windows and turn on fans. Do not handle the fragments with your bare hands or a vacuum cleaner, but attend to the mess immediately.
The EPA recommends picking up all the bulb fragments with paper towels (if you have disposable gloves, they certainly wouldn't hurt). Wipe the affected area clean, then place the fragments, towels and gloves in a sealed plastic bag. Take it to your local Household Hazardous Waste Collection Site.
5. Recycle Them!
In several states, tossing CFLs in the trash is against the law. However, enforcement is a problem, as are convenient collection locations. Still, the Journal pointed out that about 25% of all mercury-containing bulbs (including CFLs) get recycled at licensed facilities.
So what do you do with them? Most communities have a provision for collecting hazardous waste. Contact your local town hall, waste management or public works departments. Sometimes you can drop off items at a location any time, while in other communities there are designated days when they accept waste.
In some cases, it's even easier to recycle CFLs with Sylvania's RECYCLEPAK program. Order a consumer pak on Sylvania's website ($15, including shipping), fill up with about 12 burned out bulbs, attach the prepaid shipping label, and your retired CFLs will be responsibly recycled. Larger sizes and community packs also available.
Note that the recycling cost amounts to just about 1% of the total amount of money you'll spend on a bulb in its lifetime, since energy use is the lion's share.
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