Last time I wrote about the potential hazard of mercury in compact fluorescent bulbs, or CFLs. I can’t believe the response from that column. I had at least a dozen phone calls and a few dozen emails – I had to make a CFL folder for all the emails. Most were saying they were unaware of the hazards from a broken CFL bulb. Some were agreeing with me that the government should not be telling us what kind of light bulbs we can use. And a few told me that mercury poisoning is pretty serious. Here’s a sampling:
From Karen: “Thanks for the great article on CFLs. I read a similar article quite awhile ago and have been concerned about using them because of the potential hazards. The article I read suggested ripping out the carpet if one broke on it, and made it sound like the average homeowner should just evacuate and call a hazmat squad. What is the purpose of forcing people to use such hazardous lights other than to line someone’s pockets? Both children and pets are certainly at risk if there is an accident. And how would one know if you are buying or renting a house whether it could pose a hazard from a previous resident improperly disposing of a broken CFL? Will homes need warnings/disclaimers like we now have for lead paint?
“When we are all forced to buy CFLs unless we want to go back to candlelight, will there be special instructions for disposal of burnt-out CFLs? Or will people just pitch them in the trash because they don’t know the hazard of broken CFLs? Won’t our landfills then be polluted with mercury as well? I don’t think the city has given any thought to this subject so far.”
From Richard: “Here is the real story: The EPA was (and still is) on a politically correct energy/global warming campaign. Companies wanted to make a better profit margin on their florescent bulbs versus tungsten filament bulbs (the margins on these bulbs is miniscule), so they lobbied to get support to mandate the use of these CFL bulbs, plus wove the energy saving story line into “responsible corporate citizen” advertising to counter the negative press and enhance their overall brand name. The same energy saving advertising spin has been used to improve the image of the “bad, polluting” utility companies.
“What will happen next is other branches in EPA, plus environmental activists groups (great angle for boosting contributions), will start to raise the alarm of mercury in landfills etc., and then the same corporate guys will next lobby for LED technology and boost their profits even more.
“I think it will take about five years or more, but could happen very quickly if some activist group raises hell much sooner with some study. These CFL bulbs have a long use life so it will take time for a critical mass to enter the landfills. And instituting a massive recycling/deposit system across the country will not be doable without a major issue to justify it first (Catch 22). By having CFL bulbs mandated, then the companies can claim innocence and not get sucked into lawsuits to clean up landfills or be drawn into other health issues. And it is tough to sue the government. The perfect symbiotic relationship.
“Follow the money. Watch and see.”
From Daniel: “I enjoy reading your column every week, but especially the last couple of weeks when you’ve been discussing CFL bulbs. I have been buying and installing these bulbs for the last two or three years (usually when the incandescent bulb burns out). In all this time, I have never read a warning label on the packaging containing this product. Certainly not the long and somewhat involved instructions contained in your recent column. Absolutely nothing except for a bold warning that ‘this product contains mercury.’
“I am particularly concerned by that brief warning because I suffered mercury poisoning when I was 13 years old. I was in my friend’s home when his 10-year-old brother decided to break a thermometer and heat the mercury on a Bunsen burner that he had received for Christmas. Needless to say, we all got very sick and my friend’s family had to spend several days in the hospital. I didn’t receive as heavy a dose and was treated and released. I will never forget what our doctor told me: I would have to remain especially alert to avoid mercury exposure the rest of my life because mercury never leaves your body. That was 50 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
“Well, fortunately, I have never had one of these bulbs break, but I have had to replace two of them – in spite of hearing that they last for years and years. And, I have no idea on how to properly dispose of them. You didn’t mention this in your column, but do you know? Without any instructions on the packaging, I just threw them in the trash, being careful, of course, to not break them before they get in the trash truck. Obviously, they are now in the land-fill, but I am somewhat feeling guilty for not disposing of them in a proper fashion. But again, if they are this hazardous, shouldn’t the packaging contain proper instructions?
“I would appreciate an answer when you get a chance. And I really appreciate the information you provide in your column.”
The nice thing about writing a column that generates a lot of response is that I don’t have much writing to do in my next columns. I have a couple more interesting emails, and some questions to answer, so I will have one more column on this next time.