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
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.

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.

“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?

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.

Compact fluorescents already make up about a quarter of new bulb sales and are likely to pick up an even bigger share of the residential-lighting market after the law takes effect. But they’re hardly the only alternative lighting technology on the market, and experts expect that in the long run, other lighting technologies will take more of a leading role.

“The CFL is a fairly mature technology by now,” says Leslie. “The price isn’t going to drop much more for them.”

Not so for other up-and-coming technologies poised to take over big chunks of the lighting market as soon as they become more affordable. Chief among these are lights that use light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.

With extremely long lives, high efficiency, programmability, and an ever more diverse range of lighting tones available, LED lights might well be the future of residential lighting. But with prices still at $30 to $40 per bulb, they’re not flying off the shelves quite yet.

Leslie expects that will change quickly.

“For a long time, compact fluorescents were pinned in the $12 to $15 range, and they didn’t make much penetration,” Leslie says. “It was only when they began to drop down to around the $8 range that people began to take notice. Now you can get them for $2. I expect LED lights will go through the same progression, and we should see the price drop significantly in the next year.”

Even with LED lighting coming of age, compact fluorescents, complete with their one to 30 milligrams each of mercury, will continue to be a big part of residential lighting.

“We’re seeing a rapid increase in the use of CFLs now,” Leslie says. “LEDs will increase, too, and eat into that, but we’re going to see a substantial number of CFLs for many years to come.”

Michele Bachmann’s efforts to stop the lightbulb regulations have failed twice, and with less than four months to go, it seems certain the new standards will go into effect, starting in January.

But though the shrill lightbulb libertarianism of Bachmann and her fellows might ignore the overall environmental benefits of efficient lighting, the complicated protocols and alarming mixed messages contained in much of the available safety literature leave home owners like Dan Perkins ambivalent about the role of CFLs in their homes.

“We still use CFLs in some parts of our house but not in lamps that can get knocked over and certainly not in our son’s room,” Perkins says. “That was just such a crazy situation. It isn’t happening again.”

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