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April 27, 2007

COMPACT FLUORESCENTS AND MERCURY: Steven Milloy has a piece on compact fluorescents and mercury that a lot of people are writing about. Milloy tells the horrifying story of a woman in Ellsworth, Maine who broke a compact fluorescent bulb and wound up stuck with a $2000 hazmat cleanup bill.

The story may be true, but she could have saved herself some money by googling "compact fluorescent mercury." That would have brought her information like this:

The government's Energy Star program says the amount of mercury in a compact fluorescent bulb is so small that there's no immediate health risk if it's cleaned up properly.

The program's advice is to sweep up the pieces – don't vacuum them – and put them into a sealed plastic bag. Wipe the area with a damp paper towel to pick up the fine shards and particles, and put the towel into the plastic bag as well. If weather permits, open the windows to ventilate the room. Treat the bag and its contents as hazardous waste, and recycle appropriately.

Or this:

Is it true that compact fluorescent light bulbs contain harmful mercury?

Compact fluorescent lights contain a very small amount of mercury, significantly less than those in fever thermometers. This small amount of mercury slowly bonds with the phosphor coating on the lamp interior as the lamp ages, prohibiting its entry into the atmosphere. Even breaking a fluorescent bulb is not a significant health risk because the amount of mercury vapor released is so small that it dissipates into the air with a minimal chance of inhalation.

What is the proper way to dispose of burned-out compact fluorescent light bulbs?

Though compact fluorescent light bulbs are exempt from Environmental Protection Agency and State of Washington regulations, Tacoma Power recommends that you dispose of burned-out bulbs as you would batteries, motor oil or oil-based paint. City of Tacoma and Pierce County residents can dispose of household hazardous waste, including burned-out compact fluorescent light bulbs, at the City of Tacoma Landfill Household Hazardous Waste Collection Site.

Doesn't sound so scary to me. What about the overall environmental effects? Well, there's this:

Ironically, compact fluorescent bulbs are responsible for less mercury contamination than the incandescent bulbs they replaced, even though incandescents don't contain any mercury. The highest source of mercury in America’s air and water results from the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, at utilities that supply electricity. Since a compact fluorescent bulb uses 75 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb, and lasts at least six times longer, it is responsible for far less mercury pollution in the long run. A coal-burning power plant will emit four times more mercury to produce the electricity for an incandescent bulb than for a compact fluorescent.

Or this: "The very small amount of mercury in a CFL — about 5 milligrams, compared to an old-fashioned home thermometer, which had about 500 milligrams — is safe while the bulb is in operation and poses little risk even if it breaks, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency."

I'd be interested in seeing more on this topic, but if CFLs were as deadly as Milloy suggests, I wouldn't expect big companies to sell them for fear that the trial lawyers would take them to the cleaners. I kind of think that Milloy is just having a bit of fun turning enviro-scare tactics back upon themselves, but I don't think there's much foundation to these worries.

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