Michele Bachmann's Bright Idea

From the toxic right, a surprisingly healthy notion?

“The mercury in one bulb, for example, is enough to contaminate up to 6,000 gallons of water beyond safe drinking levels,” she wrote in one press release.

After we learned about Dan Perkins’s experience when just one bulb shattered in his home, we couldn’t help being hit with a stunning thought. . . .

Could Michele Bachmann be right?

LED bulbs don’t contain the mercury that CFLs do, but they’re still too expensive for widespread use.
Philips lighting systems
LED bulbs don’t contain the mercury that CFLs do, but they’re still too expensive for widespread use.

Experts dismiss Bachmann’s more florid predictions of the ecological doom threatened by twisty lightbulbs. But she isn’t wrong that the disposal of CFLs poses a real problem.

If you throw away a compact fluorescent bulb, the mercury inside inevitably ends up in a landfill or an incinerator, polluting the environment. The bulbs can be recycled and safely disposed of, but with just four months until the first wave of efficiency standards is set to go into effect, there still isn’t much in the way of infrastructure and education to make sure that happens.

A few large retailers, including Home Depot and Ikea, have instituted their own recycling programs, and some states, such as Maine, are pioneering recycling and customer-education programs. But in much of the country, there’s no systematic plan for disposing of the increasing number of compact fluorescents in circulation. Here in New York, there are no special plans to manage the safe disposal of CFLs.

“Residents are not required by law to do anything special with these bulbs,” says Matthew Lipani, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Sanitation.

In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that just 2 percent of compact fluorescents are currently recycled.

Energy-efficiency activists say the net environmental impact of the bulbs is still positive. Just looking at the mercury emissions, even if every CFL wound up broken in a landfill, by replacing traditional incandescents with CFLs, we still come out ahead.

“You can look at the toxicology globally or locally,” says Russ Leslie, associate director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “Globally, because of the avoided power generation, which puts mercury into the atmosphere, you’re better off even if the mercury in the bulbs is not disposed of properly. Nonetheless, locally, if it’s in your house, that understandably bothers some people.”

Persuading nervous home owners of the importance of the global over the local isn’t always easy.

“It can be a hard argument to explain to people, because they’re just looking at the mercury in their home,” says Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate at New York Public Interest Research Group.

“You don’t want to downplay the risks, but it’s a matter of triage when you’re working in the environmental movement—you have to work your way down the list of hazards.”

Everyone from the lightbulb-manufacturing industry to the Environmental Protection Agency is working to reassure everyone that a broken CFL is hardly a major toxic event.

“The amount of mercury in a CFL is like the very tip of a ballpoint pen—far less than what you find in other household items like batteries, thermometers, and thermostats,” says Joseph Higbee, a spokesman for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, a trade group that represents lightbulb manufacturers. “It may be that the presence of mercury in CFLs will matter to some consumers, but there’s a wide range of choices out there. It used to be that lightbulbs were more or less the same; they were just a commodity. With the new technologies, consumers need to educate themselves.”

Still, consumers trying to educate themselves about the risks of CFLs can be forgiven if they feel that they’re getting mixed messages. Even as manufacturers and the federal government urge everyone not to freak out over broken CFLs, many of the safety guidelines available online—like the Connecticut site Perkins found—do little to calm nervous parents.

CFLs have been on the market in one form or another for decades, but concern about the toxic implications of broken bulbs for home owners didn’t really ratchet up until 2007, after an incident in Prospect, Maine.

A woman there was cleaning a compact fluorescent bulb in her child’s bedroom when she dropped it, shattering it over a carpet and a metal vent connecting the second and third floor. She swept up the shards of the bulb but was still worried about the mercury that might have been released, so she called the state department of environmental protection.

The Maine DEP didn’t really know what to tell her: There wasn’t much science on what happens when a CFL breaks. So, two days later, the department sent an employee to her house to measure the remaining mercury vapor.

The readings were mostly reassuring. Although there were still elevated mercury readings around where the bulb broke, it was all well below the 300-nanograms-per-cubic-meter threshold considered safe.

The carpet was a different story: In the area immediately above where the bulb broke, the instrument measured 1,939 nanograms per cubic meter. The woman called a private cleanup specialist, who told her it would cost $2,000 to remove the remaining mercury.

The story made national headlines and prompted Maine to institute a mandatory CFL recycling program. Further studies suggested that although much of the mercury in a CFL adheres to the broken glass and can be swept away, as much as 40 percent of it escapes as vapor into the air or soaks into fabrics and permeable surfaces, seeping back out into the air slowly over time.

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