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The Mercury Dilemma
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Incandescent Lights Illegal By 2014 – But Is It A Good Idea?

 

By James Donahue

 

A clause in the new energy bill, recently signed into law by President Bush, bans incandescent light bulbs for traditional use by 2014. People will be forced to phase out of the old light bulb use by 2012, and have all of the lighting in their homes and businesses replaced by LED and/or CFL bulbs within the two years after that.

 

At first blush the idea of forcing consumers to start buying the more costly, but energy-efficient light bulbs sounds like a good one. It is estimated that in the 15-years after the phase-out, customers will save about $40 billion in electric bills, and the US will need about 14 fewer coal fired power plants.

 

What many people do not know about fluorescent lights is that they all contain a trace of mercury, a neurotoxin and long-lived environmental contaminant, that makes them not only a potential health hazard in the home and office, but an environmental problem when it becomes time for their disposal.

 

While fluorescent lamps have been around for years, it is only recently that the compact fluorescent lights, or CFLs, have become available as replacement screw-in bulbs for the home. And in the rush to go green, Americans have been quick to snap up the new CFL lamps in local stores. Although more costly than normal bulbs, the promise of longer life and a reduction in electricity use, plus the thought of doing something positive for the Earth, has prompted the sale of these lamps.

 

So what if one of these lamps breaks in the home? How much danger are people in if they live and work where this kind of accident occurs?

 

Critics of this lamp, and the governments rush to force people to buy it, cite a story of an Ellsworth, Maine woman who paid over $2,000 for clean-up after breaking a single CFL. The story first appeared in the Ellsworth newspaper and was picked up by other U.S. and Canadian newspapers.

 

But Joel Hogue, president of Elemental Services and Consulting, Ohio, which specializes in cleaning up mercury contaminated sites, said this woman was given some bad advice. He said it was not necessary for her to have gone to all of that expense and trouble to clean up after breaking a CFL.

 

He said the small amount of mercury in each bulb is such a minimal risk that he believes it can easily and safely be cleaned up at home, if common sense precautions are taken.

 

There is, however, a long-range impact concerning the mass sales and use of CFL lamps that may not be on people’s minds as yet. Once the product is used in nearly every home in America, there is a problem with collective disposal of the old burned-out lamps. Those small bits of mercury by themselves may not pose much of a threat, but consider a landfill laced with thousands of them. Are we not setting ourselves up for yet another environmental disaster . . . albeit years down the pike?

 

That the energy bill requires everyone to turn to either CFL lamps, or a new light-emitting diode, or LED bulb, has a problem written right into it. The LED bulbs, believed to be safe from dangerous toxic materials like mercury, may not be as popular.

 

So far, LED lighting is much more costly to manufacture. You can fork out about $15 to $30 a bulb, which makes most people shy away from that kind of investment. These bulbs are said to have an extremely long life span, so will eventually pay for themselves. But that initial investment will be a blinger, especially when attempting to replace 20 to 30 bulbs in the house.

 

Unless better technology is developed between now and 2014, the energy bill appears to be forcing most Americans to turn to fluorescent lamps for home lighting. And that is not necessarily going to fix the overall environmental issue.