Mercury: The Dark Side of Energy-Efficient Lighting

June 6, 2007

Around the world, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are widely touted- and sometimes required - as energy-efficient replacements for standard incandescent bulbs. Home Depot gave away 1 million CFLs on Earth Day 2007 (release). Australia has banned incandescent bulbs as of 2010. And a bill introduced Mar. 15, 2007, in the US Congress (search on HR 1547 here) would ban the sale of standard incandescent bulbs.More on that bill.

Potential energy savings from CFLs are indeed substantial. According to the US EPA, CFLs which qualify under the agency's Energy Star Program "use about 75 percent less energy than standard incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer. ... 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."

But there's no free lunch, not even for energy-saving products. Like all fluorescent lamps, CFLs contain a small amount of mercury. Therefore you can't simply toss out used or broken CFLs in the trash; they must be disposed or recycled as hazardous waste. Also, if you break one of these lamps, special steps are required to minimize mercury contamination in your home or workplace.

Not all communities offer easy fluorescent lamp recycling or disposal. Is this service available in your region? How do people participate? Which lamps contain the least mercury? How can you safely clean up a broken CFL? What happens with the recovered mercury? These can all make strong local consumer stories for print or broadcast - as well as tie your community directly to the global issue of mercury pollution.

HOW MUCH MERCURY DO CFLS CONTAIN?

According to EPA, most CFLs on the market and in use in US homes contain an average of 5 mg of mercury, "roughly equivalent to an amount that would cover the tip of a ballpoint pen." EPA Press: John Millett, 202-564-7842.

On Apr. 15, 2007, a voluntary commitment by lighting manufacturers who are members of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) went into effect. For newly manufactured CFLs less than 25 watts (basically all screw-in models) this will cap the amount of mercury at 5 mg per lamp. For new fluorescent lamps 25-40 watts, the cap is 6 mg per lamp. Given that the average before this was 5 mg, this commitment represents a slight-to-negligible actual decrease in mercury content.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU BREAK A CFL?

Last month you might have read of the woes of Brandy Bridges, a resident of Prospect, ME. On May 10, the ultra-conservative Cybercast News Service reported: "Bridges dropped a fluorescent bulb in her daughter's room and it shattered, leaving potentially unsafe levels of mercury inside the rug. At the suggestion of the state's Department of Environmental Protection, she now has to pay $2,000 for a professional environmental clean up. Her seven-year-old daughter sleeps in the family room, as her room is sealed off by plastic."

Unfortunately, Bridges probably didn't need to go to that level of trouble or expense in order to effect a safe cleanup. EPA has published fairly simple and inexpensive do-it-yourself instructions.

WHERE TO/NOT TO USE CFLs?

CFLs are good replacement for most - but not all - standard incandescent or fluorescent lighting applications. Common problem applications include two- or three-way switches, track lighting, and dimmer switches. Consumers must check that CFLs are recommended for those specific applications before they buy and install the bulb. Using CFLs not meant for these applications can mean shortened bulb life - or even bulbs that smoke, smell, or partially melt.

GETTING RID OF USED CFLS

Usually you can take used CFLs to the store where you purchased them to drop them off for disposal or recycling. It's best to check with the store at the time of purchase regarding their policy on this. A roundup of policies of local vendors can make a great sidebar.

EPA offers a list of state recycling programs. There are some in most states.

Of course, the trick then becomes tracking down whether collection points are available in locations convenient to your community. This listmentions many, but not all, local programs.

To get a definitive overview of local programs you'll probably have to call program managers or state/local environmental officials to learn specific dropoff locations and hours. Not all these programs are free, so ask about dropoff costs. This program info can make a great sidebar.

WHERE DOES ALL THAT MERCURY GO?

Some, but not all, mercury can be reclaimed and reused from consumer products, including CFLs. EPA lists many state and local mercury disposal programs. States also have their own laws or regulations governing mercury disposal and recycling, although not all of these cover CFLs.

If mercury disposal or recycling is offered in your region, try tracking an outbound shipment of reclaimed mercury through its chain of custody to its final destination. You might be surprised where it leads.

A May 28, 2007, Chemical & Engineering News feature covered the illegal international trade in mercury. Cheryl Hogue reported: "Soaring [gold prices] have fostered a gold rush as increasingly more impoverished people in developing countries have turned to small-scale gold mining for a livelihood. Millions of these miners rely on [mercury] to separate grains of gold from small bits of sand and rock in pans or other small-scale equipment. The technique - which yields a gold-mercury amalgam from which the gold can later be extracted by heating - is easy, effective, and generally, cheap."