Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Mercury's Place in a Fallen World
The writer was correct that so-called compact fluorescent light bulbs (or “CFLs” for short) contain mercury—a small amount, but enough to raise questions. Mercury, we know, is a bioaccumulating neurotoxin. In sufficient quantities it causes severe illness in humans. Most vulnerable are unborn babies, which is why governments and environmental advocates would like to remove the chemical from our industries and homes. (It is interesting that many pro-abortion advocates decry the effects of mercury on the unborn; in doing so they argue against their own position … but that’s another column.)
As for CFLs, a recent study in Maine highlights the dangers if a bulb were to shatter in one’s home. And yet even those working to reduce mercury emissions still urge the use of CFL lighting. As reported in the Boston Globe, Michael Bender, the director of the “Mercury Policy Project,” a nonprofit group working to do away with mercury use, says, "using compact fluorescent bulbs is still the brightest idea out there … people should not be afraid but informed and prepared and learn how to dispose of (CFLs) properly."
All this raises a question. If mercury is bad for us, why are governments and ecologists praising the use of CFLs, which have the stuff in it?
While CFLs are more expensive than conventional incandescent bulbs, they last about ten times longer, and they use only one-quarter the electricity. Considering that lighting accounts for about twenty percent of most people’s electric bill, using CFLs around the house will reduce your monthly utility check. Moreover, the environmental benefit of compact fluorescent lights is sizable; if everyone switched just one light bulb in their home to a CFL, reductions in electrical demand (and so, generation) would result in a reduction of pollution equivalent to the amount produced annually by 800,000 automobiles.
All this is good. But then there’s that catch: compact fluorescent lights need about five milligrams of mercury in them to function, which is about the amount of ink in the period at the end of this sentence. (To put that in perspective, it would take 250 to 1,000 of these light bulbs to equal the amount of mercury in just one typical mercury thermometer.)
Still, no matter how small the amount, mercury is bad. But here’s the upside: by cutting electrical demand, CFLs actually reduce more dangerous mercury emissions from many power plants, especially the coal-fired variety. And while mercury emissions are not necessarily an issue for local natural-gas powered plants, cutting energy usage means less dependency on fossil fuels, as well as cutting emissions of other pollutants, which is always beneficial. Most importantly, however, is if we use CFLs correctly, their mercury won’t enter the environment. (Importantly, like all household hazards, special care must be given to CFLs should one break—information that should come with the bulb.)