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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24 comments
Ggg812
Ggg812

anyone know her stances on nuclear power? what about dealing with the incredibly toxic wastes that are the byproduct of producing nuclear energy?

Mtm14
Mtm14

I think the real problem was the government got way out in front of promoting CFL's but didn't require any adequate labeling about the treatment of disposal and breakage (the breakage part was likely a delibrate choice - if I had read the EPA's primer on CFL's before buying they would have been put back on the store shelf). I broke one in my garage while changing the bulb, had no idea and did everything wrong. Probably breathed it all in, made dust, shook it into the garbage can, not a sealed ziploc and the garbage man probably was exposed too. Looked up the mercury factor long after the incident. There should be a recycling plan in all 50 states, these things should not wind up in the landfills...because I'm sure we're going to find out 50 years from now that it's a bigger deal than we though, like oil tanks in the ground.

I hate CFL's. I don't like the light they cast, they do give me a headache after long exposure, and they don't "light up" right away in colder climates, they're dim and take many minutes sometimes to warm up and shine fully. If you keep your heat at 65 during the winter (to save energy!) good luck with the CFL's. I really hope the LEDs are superior...because if they're not I'll be stockpiling the incandescents.

Shaun Costello
Shaun Costello

PERRY AND GOP HOPEFULS CRAWL ON KNEES BEFORE RELIGIOUS FANATICS - BEGGING FOR APPROVALIt's a sad commentary to the state of our Republic, that these GOP Presidential hopefuls feel the need to come crawling before a gathering of Evangelicals in the hope of gaining approval and support. Evangelicals, most of whom seem to have one foot in a staight jacket, have taken over the selection process for the Republican Party. This is exactly the kind of political mayhem that Jefferson warned us about, and took action to prevent. The nominee of the Republican Party has to cowtow to religious fanatics in order to get nominated. The Evangelical agenda includes; the reversal of Roe v Wade, prayer in public schools, the end of stem cell research, making homosexuality a crime, and legislating a National Religion - theirs. Oh, and influencing Cabinet appointments. For Secretary of State - how about Robert Tilton, or Jimmy Swaggert, or Pat Robertson, whichever one of them isn't under current indictment for tax fraud. The clock is ticking for the Christian Storybook. Only right wing America takes them seriously. The rest of the world is laughing.Read this:http://shauncostello.wordpress...

pennycandy
pennycandy

I had 2 of these bulbs start smoking and one melted the socket before i could get to the switch to turn it off. Help me save energy???...sure it will...I will be saving lots of energy when I am sleeping in a tent in the backyard when my house burns down.

No thanks ....I'll be stock up on incandescent bulbs.

Arthur W. Corbin
Arthur W. Corbin

"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."

What studies? I suggest you contact the Lawrence Berkeley Lab Lighting Science Group for the studies they have completed on CFLs. Some key findings:1) the amount of mercury in a CFL is the same as a bite of tuna (or other high level fish);2) the amount of vaporized mercury is miniscule and decreases over time as mercury is absorbed into the phosphor coating on the inside of the glass;3) more mercury, far more, is produced by coal-fired power plants than by CFLs AND the mercury from coal-fired plants is released into the air (which settles on the land and the oceans, hence the mercury in high level fish); and4) we are tapped out on creating more power and IF we had more power generation, our aging electrical grid cannot carry more power to consumers (see S CA blackout for an example).

Energy conservation is the future. Using a 100 year old technology, incandescent lamps, that uses 90% of the energy consumed to produce heat is absurd.

The incandescent lamp is becoming more efficient. 100 watt incandescents are being replaced with 71 watt incandescents, light output and color of light is the same.

CFLs and LEDs are not the only choices should you want to replace incandescents and save energy and increase bulb life up to 50 times. A good lighting store or lighting designer can offer a range of choices specific to your use.

I agree that CFLs are a poor choice in a children's room table lamp. I also know that a table lamp is a poor choice for a childs room. Use ceiling or wall mounted (hard wire, no cords to grab) fixtures that are out of reach and difficult to break for children's rooms. This is the ounce of prevention approach.

What is a good CFL? Try the reveal by GE for exceptional color BUT use a higher wattage equivalent than recommended. Replace a 60 watt incandescent with a 20 watt CFL, not a 13 watt or 15 watt.Do not enclose CFLs unless the CFL is high temperature rated (heat kills many CFLs).Use CFLs where they are on for more than 15 minutes at a time.Use dimming CFLs with CFL dimmers (now readily available) for best performance.Avoid most reflector CFLs. They do not perform as well as R (reflector) or PAR lamps (again, a lighting showroom or lighting designer can help with the right bulb or tube).Try to see a 930 or 950 fluorescent in a showroom next to an 830 or 850 fluorescent, you will be amazed.LEDs are a technology product. LEDs use some of the same parts and manufacturing equipment as the many electronic devices all of us depend on. The best products (see the Philips Endura lamp or the Sylvania Ultra series for examples) produce light very close to the light produced by incandescent bulbs.

Yes, I am a lighting designer and teacher.

Dcoronata
Dcoronata

I've read so much unintelligible hyperbole about the dangers of these bulbs.

1) You claim they contain up to 30 mg of Hg. There hasn't been a bulb made in the last decade that has nearly that much, certainly for home use. You are off by roughly a factor of ten.

2) The same woman who freaked when she broke a bulb in her kids room didn't have a problem using a mercury filled thermometer in a far more sensitive part of her kid. And I'm sure the mercury in her fillings aren't anywhere near as much of a concern to her as the mercury in the lamp.

3) This issue has nothing to do with either science, energy management or health concerns, it is about being anti-government. Anything that the government does is wrong with these people, which is why of course they spend their entire lives being a part of government...

4) The only major difference between CFL and the bulbs that have lighted up almost every store and office for the last 50 years is the "C". You would think that offices and factories, stores and hospitals would have abandoned fluorescent decades ago if they were so deleterious to your health.

5) I've had the chance to play with some of the newest LEDs from Cree and Seoul semiconductor, and they are insanely bright but they are no more efficient than CFLs. (Note, I don't mean LED light bulbs, I mean the actual LEDs themselves- I'm an electronic engineer working in energy management and lighting control.) It is possible that in the near future LED will become more efficient, but not by very much. LEDs can not produce white light easily, they produce blue light by exciting phosphors which is for all practical purposes EXACTLY the same way a fluorescent bulbs does it, but instead of a doing it in a partial vacuum it does it on an embedded substrate. These LEDs produce a lot of heat, which is why the lamp used in the photo looks like an armored flashlight. They are covered with heat sinks to shed the waste heat. This will make them harder to drop in price than you'd imagine...

Next time you write about this issue, please consult some engineers who actually work in the industry, and get your data correct. And don't look to politicians for facts, especially those who have such a tendency to distort. I can't say this puts the Voice in a positive light.

John Baum
John Baum

Many of us work in office buildings. Look up. If you are still reading this you didn't run screaming for the door. CFL is not the total solution but its a viable one untill LED for home use becomes more affordable.

hardcase2
hardcase2

Sounds like one big over reaction to me. Anybody would think the bulbs had something as toxic as Polonium 210 in them. I have accidentaliy broken a few and cleaned up without any silly worries. I also have a mouth full of amalgam fillings, which haven't as yet made me as mad as a hatter. Some Americans should stop being so Neurotic.

Regina1959
Regina1959

If the company(ies) involved in producing these light bulbs, didn't rush into production, perhaps, they might have improved them before mass producing and shipping them out. But alas, profits come before safety. Just imagine if some people who want smaller government, actually got their way! We would surely be bombarded with more and more unsafe items in the market place. Imagine no regulations at all? No, that would be total disaster to us humans and the environment. We do enough damage to the environment with the regulations we do have in place. Let's not go backwards and eliminate the OSHA (Occupational, Safety, Hazardous Agency). Companies who fast forward their products into the market place without good research should be responsible for any cleanup and or health problems associated with their products.

carol
carol

How can they be safe and dangerous at the same time. I questioned this when they first came out. Its great to have one last so long, but if it breaks youre in the twilight zone.

Mercurie
Mercurie

After reading the article about the CFL bulbs, now I'm concerned about the safety and long term health of the people who are in direct contact with the manufacturing of those bulbs. Are there any studies out there following their health status?

At the moment we could all use less electricity, unplug appliances we are not using all the time such as the printer, toaster, toaster oven, toothbrushes, etc.. It's is ok to let those appliances be off the grid.

Albert
Albert

So – I think it is time to serve notice on God and Mother Nature that they are going to have to remove all of the Mercury, Lead, Asbestos, Arsenic and all of the other harmful materials that are buried in the Earth and dispose of it according to EPA Standards. God and Mother Nature should be forced cap all of these Volcanoes to end the harmful emission that they emit on a daily basis. Just the CO2 emissions alone violate far worse in one day than all of the coal burning plants have generated their entire existence in operation.

A concerned citizen
A concerned citizen

The legislation does not ban incandescent light bulbs, it just says they must be a a certain standard. If the companies spent a pittance of the profits they make to get to that standard then nobody would be using the mercury based bulbs.

When we eliminated all regulations for the banks we caused the bank meltdown that has put us into this economic crisis. If we close the EPA and stop regulating that will cause an environmental meltdown that will last for centuries.

Connie Beach Maltin
Connie Beach Maltin

It seems that good ole American ingenuity should come up with a better answer to the light bulb. We need one that is energy efficient and NOT hazardous to your health and the environment - surely that can be accomplished without too much trouble - or has all the ingenuity been outsourced too?

Chris Rasmussen
Chris Rasmussen

I have a suggestion. Someone take a case of CFLs into the offices of the Village Voice and begin tossing them against walls and against the floor, breaking them. Let's see how the Village Voice responds to this hazmat incident, and then let the author of this stupid article re-think his position. Know-nothing cussedness of Republicans? You stupid douchebag.

Chris Rasmussen
Chris Rasmussen

Oh, one other thing. 100% of CFLs are made in China. So this is an attack on American workers, American jobs, American wealth, in addition to being a direct attack on American health.

These people, I reiterate, are SCUM!

Chris Rasmussen
Chris Rasmussen

When one of these breaks in MY house and I get a $2,000 bill for cleanup, I'll send that bill to the Federal EPA--and WILL expect them to pay it, 100% of it.

So environmental activists now are given the right by our supposed elected officials to force ALL Americans to buy a certain product that contains a known highly toxic substance. These people are committing economic terrorism and should be taken out back and shot. Who in the HELL gave them the right to do ANYTHING like this? Who ARE these people? What are their NAMES? We are calling them OUT! NOW! We want their names and who they work for.

The ONLY environment that matters to me is MINE--the one I pay for--my home. Who ARE these people that they can ORDER us to bring highly toxic substances into our homes? And have to pay a LOT more money for the privilege.

These environmentalists are scum, pure human scum. They admit to making global calculations with our homes and our children at the bottom of the pyramid. This is so wrong it defies rational thought.

REPEAL THIS STUPID REGULATION and DISBAND the EPA. Someone, finally, must begin doing the RIGHT THING for this country.

DMSTCC
DMSTCC

Seems like it's a "follow the $$$" situation again. LEDs should have primary alternative long, long ago.

Mtm14
Mtm14

There hasn't been mercury in thermometers for human temperature detection in years either...so your rant about sticking one in another part of her kid is just silly.

Yep FL bulbs do light up public spaces...and we all hate that lighting.

I think you're wrong, it's not about being anti-government....but the CFL's should be labeled sufficiently. And give people a clue.

Alferdonito4
Alferdonito4

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Rutger
Rutger

wow...three RANTS from the same person...someone's angry. LOL

and i AGREE with this author about the "know-nothing cussedness"...michele bachmann is the same woman who claims climate change is a myth. perhaps you feel the same way...? care about your OWN environment...but when your kids and grandkids and greatgrandkids are inhaling toxic fumes...a loss of valuable wildlife and rainforest...they'll have YOU to thank for it (they can use this last post of yours as a reference)...

Mykeljon1
Mykeljon1

When I was a child, I had many cavities in my teeth. The dentist used mercury mixed with a bonding agent to fill my teeth. Then he would give me pure mercury to play with. It was great fun rolling this dime sized blob of mercury around in the palm of my hand. I am quite certain that, one way or another, I have been exposed in childhood to way more mercury than could be found in a truckload of CFL bulbs. I have suffered no harm as a result. This hysteria over lightbulbs is totally unnecessary.

Mad Scientist
Mad Scientist

Sounds like you've inhaled a little too much mercury already, Chris. Or maybe just watch way too much Fox News!

 
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