Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Blinded by the light

"If every American home replaced just one light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified bulb, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, more than $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars." -- Energystar.gov

It's hard to argue with a stat like that. But I'm going to give it go, because I really, really hate these things.

My first close encounter with compact fluorescent lights, or CFLs, came when Hubby put them into the recessed lighting in the downstairs hall. Said Hubby screwed them in and went about his merry way without a word of warning. One by one, the rest of us discovered his nasty little surprise, and the reaction was a unanimous "WTF?!". The shivering, blueish light would have been perfect for an interrogation room, or maybe a horror flick subway scene. The bulbs were promptly relocated to the laundry room, where they could do their bit for the planet without turning our first floor passageway into the Hallway from Hell.

Undaunted, Hubby moved on to the basement stairwell, installing a naked spiral in the ceiling fixture there. When we open that door, the thing hits us right in the eyes. It's like taking an ice pick to the brain. When the door is closed, the weird light spills out under and around it, looking for all the world like Carol Anne's closet from the movie Poltergeist. Which is appropriate because, like those other horrors, "They're heeeeere."

In the name of environmentalism a number of countries, the USA included, are working to completely phase out the incandescent bulb. Energy saving bulbs are already becoming mandatory in some areas. CFLs do use considerably less energy to produce the same amount of light. Reduced energy generation, particularly from coal-fired plants, saves massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollutants from entering the atmosphere. This is obviously a very good thing.

However, CFLs present serious health and environmental problems of their own that have not been adequately addressed:

Mercury. Proponents of CFLs say the amount of the neurotoxin in a CFL is tiny, and that it is not an issue if the bulb is not broken. Indeed, some experts say you'd have to break several at once to release enough to do harm.

So why did an EPA test of this child's bedroom, where a single bulb was broken, indicate mercury levels well above safe levels? The homeowner was left with a $2000 bill for haz-mat cleanup that she couldn't pay, resulting in the room being sealed off from the rest of the house.

It may be that the government agencies' response in that incident was an extreme overreaction. Or maybe not. The EPA's own instructions for cleaning up after a broken CFL are as follows:

1. Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.

2. Carefully scoop up the fragments and powder with stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a sealed plastic bag.

Use disposable rubber gloves, if available (i.e., do not use bare hands). Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes and place them in the plastic bag.

Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.

3. Place all cleanup materials in a second sealed plastic bag.

Place the first bag in a second sealed plastic bag and put it in the outdoor trash container or in another outdoor protected area for the next normal trash disposal.
Note: Some states prohibit such trash disposal and require that broken and unbroken lamps be taken to a local recycling center.

Wash your hands after disposing of the bag.

If a fluorescent bulb breaks on a rug or carpet:

4. First, remove all materials you can without using a vacuum cleaner, following the steps above. Sticky tape (such as duct tape) can be used to pick up small pieces and powder.

If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister) and put the bag or vacuum debris in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or protected outdoor location for normal disposal.

These instructions are not on the packaging. How many people would ignore them, even if they were there? And how much damage will be done to children by mercury vapors from incomplete cleanups?

Even if they don't break, the CFL presents a dilemma for disposal. Tossed in a landfill, the mercury can get into the air, soil and ground water. Special recycling facilities are required to handle them safely -- facilities that do not exist yet in many areas. My research turned up only one facility near us, but according to its website it accepts only commercial waste and may charge a fee for taking fluorescents. Not that it matters, as its phone has been disconnected. Won't most people just toss them in the trash?

Now, here's the kicker: 80 percent of CFLs are made in China, where environmental controls are virtually nonexistent. How much mercury will be released during the manufacture of literally billions of these bulbs?

Health Issues. In the UK, where the conversion to CFLs is well underway, and where all incandescents will be off the shelves by 2011, doctors are reporting that for many patients CFLs cause migraines, epileptic seizures, and nausea. Patients with lupus, eczema, and those who are photosensitive experience painful reactions and worsening rashes when exposed to CFLs.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we do away with energy saving light bulbs. Far from it. What I am saying is that we should not allow ourselves to be railroaded into believing they are a risk-free, necessary, or perfect alternative to traditional incandescents. What I am saying is that we need to preserve the right to choose.

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