How much money does it take to screw in a compact fluorescent lightbulb? About $4.28 for the bulb and labor — unless you break the bulb. Then you — like Brandy Bridges of Ellsworth, Maine — could be looking at a cost of about $2,004.28, which doesn’t include the costs of frayed nerves and risks to health.
Sound crazy? Perhaps no more than the stampede to ban the incandescent light bulb in favor of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) — a move already either adopted or being considered in California, Canada, European Union and Australia.
According to an April 12 article in the Ellsworth American, Mrs. Bridges had the misfortune of breaking a CFL during installation in her daughter’s bedroom — it dropped and shattered on the carpeted floor.
Aware that CFLs contain potentially hazardous substances, Mrs. Bridges called her local Home Depot for advice. The store told her the CFL contained mercury and she should call the Poison Control hotline, which in turn, directed her to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
The DEP sent a specialist to Mrs. Bridges’ house to test for mercury contamination. The specialist found mercury levels in the bedroom in excess of 6 times the state’s “safe” level for mercury contamination of 300 billionths of a gram per cubic meter.
The DEP specialist recommended Mrs. Bridges call an environmental clean-up firm which, reportedly, gave her a “low-ball” estimate of $2,000 to clean up the room. The room was then sealed-off with plastic and Mrs. Bridges began “gathering finances” to pay for the $2,000 cleaning. Reportedly, her insurance company wouldn’t cover the clean-up costs because mercury is a pollutant.
Given that replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs in the average U.S. household is touted as saving as much as $180 annually in energy costs — and assuming Mrs. Bridges doesn’t break any more CFLs — it will take her more than 11 years to recoup the clean-up costs in the form of energy savings.
Even if you don’t go for the full-scale panic of the $2,000-clean-up, the do-it-yourself approach is still somewhat intense, if not downright alarming.
Consider the procedure offered by the Maine DEP’s Web page entitled, “What if I accidentally break a fluorescent bulb in my home?”
Don’t vacuum bulb debris because a standard vacuum will spread mercury-containing dust throughout the area and contaminate the vacuum. Ventilate the area and reduce the temperature. Wear protective equipment like goggles, coveralls and a dust mask. Collect the waste material into an airtight container. Pat the area with the sticky side of tape. Wipe with a damp cloth. Finally, check with local authorities to see where hazardous waste may be properly disposed.
The only step the Maine DEP left off was the final one — hope you did a good enough clean-up so that you, your family and pets aren’t poisoned by any mercury inadvertently dispersed or missed.
This of course assumes that people are even aware that breaking CFLs entails special clean-up procedures in the first place.
The potentially hazardous CFL is being pushed by companies like Wal-Mart — which wants to sell 100 million CFLs at 5 times the cost of incandescent bulbs during 2007 ? and surprisingly, environmentalists.
It’s quite odd that environmentalists have embraced the CFL, which cannot now, and will not in the foreseeable future be made without mercury. Given that there are about 4 billion lightbulb sockets in American households, we’re looking at the possibility of creating billions of hazardous wastes sites like the Bridges’ bedroom. Usually, environmentalists want hazardous materials out of, not in, our homes.
These are the same people that go berserk at the thought of mercury being emitted from power plants and the presence of mercury in seafood. Environmentalists have whipped up so much fear of mercury among the public that many local governments have even launched mercury thermometer exchange programs.
As the activist group Environmental Defense urges us to buy CFLs, it defines mercury on a separate part of its Web site as a “highly toxic heavy metal that can cause brain damage and learning disabilities in fetuses and children” and as “one of the most poisonous forms of pollution.”
Greenpeace also recommends CFLs, while simultaneously bemoaning contamination caused by a mercury thermometer factory in India. But where are mercury-containing CFLs made? Not in the U.S., under strict environmental regulation but in India and China, where environmental standards are virtually nonexistent.
And let’s not forget about the regulatory nightmare known as the Superfund law, the EPA regulatory program best known for requiring expensive, but often needless clean-up of toxic waste sites, along with endless litigation over such clean-ups.
We’ll eventually be disposing billions and billions of CFL mercury bombs. Some (much) of the mercury from discarded and/or broken CFLs is bound to make its way into the environment and give rise to Superfund liability, which in the past has needlessly disrupted many lives, cost tens of billions of dollars, and sent many businesses into bankruptcy.
As each CFL contains 5 milligrams of mercury, at the Maine “safety” standard of 300 nanograms per cubic meter, it would take 16,667 cubic meters of soil to “safely” contain all the mercury in a single CFL. While CFL vendors and environmentalists tout the energy cost savings of CFLs, they conveniently omit the personal and societal costs of CFL disposal.
Not only are CFLs much more expensive than incandescent bulbs and emit light that many regard as inferior to incandescent bulbs, they pose a nightmare if they break and require special disposal procedures. Should government (egged on by environmentalists and the Wal-Marts of the world) impose on us such higher costs, denial of lighting choice, disposal hassles and breakage risks in the name of saving a few dollars every year on the electric bill?
Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and is an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.