If We All Do Compact Fluorescent Bulbs, the Mercury Will Drop

Dimmable CFL photo
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Dimmable CFLs now available - photo via Velo Steve @ flickr.

Today's compact fluorescent lights are now light-years ahead of their ancestors of just a few years ago, in terms of the range of styles available and their lower price points. True, LED lighting is nipping at the heels of the lighting industry, solving a lot of lighting needs with very low energy use, and possibly a better life-cycle profile. But at TreeHugger, we've long agitated for CFLs, and we still do. Now that the European Union has banned incandescent bulbs, perhaps we'll be able to see that a CFL world will be still bright enough, and with billions of dollars saved in energy costs as a bonus.

Yet some of us can't quite forget about the dangerous drop of mercury in CFLs.

Mercury: A king of toxic waste

And with good reason. Mercury is considered to be one of the most toxic of toxic chemicals. The European Commission cautions people to air out rooms and avoid using the vacuum cleaner if a CFL bulb with mercury in it gets broken. Although the quantity in the average CFL is no larger than the small tip of a ballpoint pen, direct contact with mercury can cause brain and kidney damage in humans and their animal pets.

CFL manucturers know this, and are adapting. Some companies sell the light instead of the bulb; another prevents mercury contamination when broken.

Many Home Depots and hazardous waste disposal and recycling centers accept compact fluorescent lights. (You can find sources to take your old CFLs at Earth 911).

But do people properly "recycle" them? Well, Kate Kelly, author and Huffington Post contributor, reports that only 2 percent of CFLs have been recycled. That's a depressingly low percentage.

And what we call "recycling" in its truest sense may be closer to stockpiling (the U.S. government has more than 4,000 tons of mercury it is holding!). This doesn't mean old mercury is never reused -- it is -- though the amounts coming from recycling are small.

In addition, mercury mining continues in some countries, so there's still a need for governments to regulate and control the Earth's cache of this element and make sure mining stops and recycled mercury is the primary source.

And that's in the addition to the pressing need to get away from coal-fired power generation, which spreads mercury everywhere.

But mercury will drop...if we all get on the compact fluorescent bandwagon

Which brings us around again to CFLs.

It has been estimated that with current U.S. power generation (which comes from more than 50 percent coal), switching to compact fluorescent bulbs in a big wave will reduce the amounts of mercury getting into our environment. At coal-fired plants (the biggest source currently of mercury emissions), 13.6 milligrams of mercury is emitted just to light up an incandescent bulb, while a CFL only would lead to (if incinerated, tossed out, or broken instead of recycled) 3.3 milligrams of mercury being emitted into the environment.

The bottom line: The mercury in a CFL is approximately one-quarter the amount emitted if an incandescent was used in its place, and that's assuming the CFL isn't recycled.

That's a good-news picture.

Doesn't it make you want to...switch?