Monday, April 30, 2007

Compact fluorescent lights: Don't. Just don't.

This is not exactly a Nobel prize winning discovery. Why is it that compact fluorescent lights are supposed to be a good idea?
The CFL mercury nightmare

How much money does it take to screw in a compact fluorescent light bulb? About US$4.28 for the bulb and labour -- unless you break the bulb. Then you, like Brandy Bridges of Ellsworth, Maine, could be looking at a cost of about US$2,004.28, which doesn't include the costs of frayed nerves and risks to health...

... According to an April 12 article in The Ellsworth American, 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, Bridges called her local Home Depot for advice. The store told her that the CFL contained mercury and that she should call the Poison Control hotline, which in turn directed her to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The DEP sent a specialist to Bridges' house to test for mercury contamination. The specialist found mercury levels in the bedroom in excess of six times the state's "safe" level for mercury contamination of 300 billionths of a gram per cubic meter. The DEP specialist recommended that Bridges call an environmental cleanup firm, which reportedly gave her a "low-ball" estimate of US$2,000 to clean up the room. The room then was sealed off with plastic and Bridges began "gathering finances" to pay for the US$2,000 cleaning. Reportedly, her insurance company wouldn't cover the cleanup costs because mercury is a pollutant.

Given that the replacement of incandescent bulbs with CFLs in the average U.S. household is touted as saving as much as US$180 annually in energy costs -- and assuming that Bridges doesn't break any more CFLs -- it will take her more than 11 years to recoup the cleanup costs in the form of energy savings.

The potentially hazardous CFL is being pushed by companies such as Wal-Mart, which wants to sell 100 million CFLs at five times the cost of incandescent bulbs during 2007 ...
In my life I've probably broken 30 regular light bulbs. If they'd been CFLs that would come to .... $60,000 in cleanup fees. LEDs less, CFSs ... forget it.

Update: I had 6oo,000. Bad math. A comment corrected me!

Update June 6, 2007: A commenter pointed to this Energy Star Canada document. It's deeply "schizophrenic" in the non-medical sense of term. On the one hand it says:
  • These are perfectly safe for your baby's bedroom. Don't worry about them. You could break one a day for the rest of your days and not have a problem.
  • They must be disposed of as toxic waste. Vacuum up carefully and then drop your vacuum off at the toxic waste site ...
I'm joking about the vacuum. Sorry, this still doesn't make sense. Either the mercury content is harmless and they're not toxic waste, or they're toxic waste. (My bet is they're not really toxic waste, but I'm not buying 'em until we get the regulators to be internally consistent.)


Unknown said...

First, it's important to note that Stephen Milloy is hardly an objective journalist. Rather, he's a pro-industry activist (I'd call him a shill, myself) whose website ( clearly pushes the belief that 99% of environmentalism is crap.

Just because he has an agenda doesn't mean he's wrong. But he's certainly leaving out several key facts that a reader should consider when making a decision about CFL bulbs.

First, even if you ignore the possibility of bulb recycling programs, CFLs (if powered by coal-generated electricity) reduce the amount of mercury being released into the environment, simply because they use less electricity.

The counterargument is, of course, that broken bulbs bring the mercury straight into the home. The weakness to that argument is that mercury vapor isn't readily accumulated by the body. Methylated mercury ("organic mercury") is the really dangerous stuff, and it gets produced when mercury vapors end up in rivers and lakes [source].

In short, Milloy is grossly exaggerating both the risk this woman faced, and the supposed double-standard of the environmental groups he criticizes.

But what about the cleanup costs? In my opinion, the woman was given bad advice, which told her to take much more expensive cleanup than was warranted by the health risks. I've found several sources that basically agree with The Great Fountain of Wisdom, Truth, and Enlightenment ( While the woman lives in Maine, and somebody from the Maine DEQ might have told her to panic, the advice conflicts with the advice given on that organization's website, which should take a bit of time, but almost no money.

CFLs: Just do it! :)

JGF said...

Great comment Bryce. I thought at the time that Bryce had an agenda, but I also recalled a mercury spill we had at our home. We found a broken thermometer and had to figure out what to do. We checked the MN web site and the advice was similar to the Maine story. I disregarded it of course (I know that mercury toxicity is less than commonly stated, though the vapors are very nasty), but it's on the books.

We need a statement from a trusted body (NIH? IOM?) on the protocols to follow in the event of CFL breakage, homeowner liability, cleanup of sate web sites, etc.

If all that happens, then I'll buy 'em.

Frankly, I think we should simply switch to LEDs and forget the CFLs. The CFLs look like a very intermediate technology and it doesn't seem worth bothering with them.

Perhaps the problem is adapting LEDs to existing lighting fixtures?

Anonymous said...

30x2000=60000 not 600000

Anonymous said...

See Natural Resources Canada's CFL FAQ: