By Lisa Garber
January 4, 2013
The days of the 75-watt incandescent light bulbs seem to be numbered. Stores may sell their existing stock, but January 2nd’s new federal law is preparing to phase out production and importation. Forty- and 60-watt incandescent bulbs will face the same slow death next year.
The government is instead favoring fluorescent bulbs including CFLs, or compact fluorescent light, for the bulbs’ ability to use 75 percent less energy and last up to 10 times longer than incandescent. The problem? Mercury exposure. While CFL’s mercury content has drawn fire—which is usually snuffed out with instruction on proper disposal techniques, what often goes unmentioned is growing unrest related to research showing that CFLs may emit poisonous materials when switched on. These materials include phenol, naphthalene, and styrene, which are, respectively, harmful to the eyes, skin, respiratory tract, and kidneys; destructive to red blood cells; and a suspected toxin to the gastrointestinal tract, kidney, respiratory system, and more.
Carcinogens: Just a Click Away
German scientist Peter Braun advises keeping “such carcinogenic substances…as far away as possible from the human environment.” He even claims to use them “only very economically. They should not be used in unventilated areas and definitely not in the proximity of the head.”
Another study, published in Environmental Engineering Science, highlights the dangers of CFLs once broken. Research by Yadong Li and Li Jin of Jackson State University shows that while liquid mercury levels initially exposed after a break are lower than Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations for “safe” mercury levels, mercury leaching actually increases over time to well above such levels. Even if the broken material is quickly contained and disposed of, mercury continues to leach into landfills and into groundwater, polluting our drinking water and food supply.
Mercury Leaching from Energy Consumption
Hoarding incandescent light bulbs won’t do much for mercury leaching, however. The European Commission states that 4 percent of the EU’s total energy consumption was dedicated to light bulbs (excluding spot lights). To power these bulbs, no matter the type, the EU burns some coal, the very act of which emits mercury. According to the EC, incandescent lamps result in the highest mercury emissions to the environment per unit of light produced, halogen lamps the least, and CFLs somewhere in the middle, taking into consideration that only 20 percent of them are typically recycled and the rest are inappropriately disposed of.
The EC also mentions that any of the lamps discussed here result is around 20 times lower the amount emitted from traditional dental practices. if that really matters.
The bag is mixed at the end of the day. One thing, however, is clear: mercury is practically ubiquitous in our modern food and environment, and whether from one kind of bulb or another, or from the coal burning used to power them, more research is due before irreversible damage is done to the planet and its inhabitants.