Michele Bachmann's Bright Idea

From the toxic right, a surprisingly healthy notion?

Michele Bachmann's Bright Idea
Andrea Levy

Not long ago, Dan Perkins was in his New Haven home when his wife told him that she’d broken a lightbulb. She’d been cleaning in the attic bedroom of their seven-year-old son when she knocked over a lamp. The bulb, one of those twisty compact fluorescents, shattered onto the carpet next to their son’s bed.

Perkins, who draws the political comic This Modern World under the name Tom Tomorrow, was vaguely aware that a broken compact fluorescent bulb might be more problematic than a broken conventional incandescent.

“I knew that they had some mercury in them,” Perkins says. “That had been kind of a propaganda point for the right wing in the debate over bulb efficiency, so that was on my radar.”

Photograph by Anton Balazh
Natural Resources Defense Council

To learn what kind of risk the broken bulb posed and what he ought to do about it, Perkins turned to Google, which sent him to a fact sheet put out by the Connecticut Department of Public Health entitled “Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs: What to Do If a Bulb Breaks.”

“Stay calm,” the fact sheet instructed. But the four-page document that followed read more like reactor-core meltdown protocols than simple reassurance. It cautioned that small children, pregnant women, and pets should be sequestered from the breakage site and called for an immediate shutdown of any ventilation systems.

“Before you go back to the area, gather the following supplies,” it instructed. “Disposable gloves, flashlight, duct tape or other sticky tape, two index cards or stiff pieces of paper, zip-lock bags, damp paper towels or rags, portable window fan.”

The bulb had broken on a carpet near Perkins’s son’s bed, and the fact sheet had a recommendation for that as well: “The small amount of mercury inside of a CFL can penetrate carpet and continue to be emitted at very low levels for a long time,” it read. “This may continue even after the initial clean-up. If a CFL breaks on carpeting, consider removing the section of carpet where the breakage occurred, especially if young children or pregnant women frequently use this room.”

The rug was due for replacement anyway, so Perkins decided to take a utility knife to it and cut out the portion where the bulb had broken.

“We’re not alarmist, overprotective people,” he says, “but having just spilled one of the most hazardous substances known to mankind right next to our child’s bed and then reading this thing, we defaulted to the safest approach.”

Perkins had his son sleep in the living room that night while the bedroom aired out, and although he still uses compact fluorescent bulbs in some fixtures in his house, he no longer uses them in his son’s room or in lamps that might be knocked over.

“We felt like we had stumbled into a Kafka story over a broken lightbulb.”

Beginning in January, a new set of federal efficiency standards will go into effect, slowly phasing out most of the traditional incandescent bulbs Americans have grown used to over the last century and a half.

The law doesn’t ban the sale of conventional incandescent bulbs outright, but it imposes new efficiency standards that the old technology can’t meet.

Environmentalists and energy-independence activists pressed for the regulation, winning its inclusion in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. In 2012, the law will kick into effect across the country, starting by regulating 100-watt bulbs. The following year, it will expand to cover 75-watt bulbs, and in 2014, 60- and 40-watt bulbs.

Almost everyone agrees that the new efficiency standards are a good idea overall. The classic incandescent bulb is notoriously wasteful, releasing about 90 percent of the energy it uses as heat rather than light. An average household can save more than $500 a year by replacing all its incandescents with CFLs. The energy saved over the lifetime of those bulbs will reduce carbon dioxide emissions more than if the household stopped driving a car for a whole year.

Not everyone’s convinced, though. Conservatives, led by self-appointed “Tea Party Receptacle” and gonzo political candidate Michele Bachmann, see creeping tyranny in the federal regulation of lightbulbs. Bachmann has tried to kill the legislation, repeatedly sponsoring a bill she calls the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act.

“I think Thomas Edison did a pretty patriotic thing for this country by inventing the lightbulb,” she told an audience this year. “If you want to buy Thomas Edison’s wonderful invention, you should be able to!”

It isn’t just Bachmann who thinks the issue has political legs. Texas congressman Joe Barton has also sponsored a bill to save Americans from the fate of having to buy CFLs, which he sneeringly referred to as “the little, squiggly, pig-tailed ones.”

And in what read to many as a grand gesture of know-nothing cussedness, the Republican majority made a public point of removing all the compact fluorescent lights from the House cafeteria earlier this year, replacing them with inefficient incandescents.

Bachmann, who is loudly anti-abortion, has unironically adopted pro-choice vocabulary in her lightbulb crusade. But her argument isn’t just about personal freedom from the dictates of big government. She has also raised doubts about whether the more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs are even that safe and environmentally friendly.

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