Energy efficiency is a great way to save money and help the planet at the same time, and replacing all your old incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) is a great place to start conserving energy. CFL bulbs, however, contain varying degrees of the toxic metal mercury, and should be handled with extreme caution. CFL bulbs are perfectly safe to use, but every precaution should be taken to make sure the bulbs do no break.
I spent a couple hours last week replacing most of the incandescent bulbs in my vacation home with CFLs. I had seen a report about them on the news well over a year ago and have been gradually replacing the bulbs at home with CFLs as they burn out. Last night, in fact, I replaced the eight bulbs in the dining room chandelier with CFL bulbs only to discover that they do not work on a dimmer switch. Had I read the small print on the box, I would have avoided that mistake.
But there are more important things missing from the small print on the boxes of CFL bulbs that I bought. This morning, a friend coincidentally emailed me an announcement by the Energy Working Group, which listed steps to take when a CFL bulb breaks. I had no idea.
For the most part, you have to treat the incident like a biohazard event by donning a makeshift safe suit, clearing and cleaning the area, and isolating the broken bulb in a sealed glass container. A broken CFL bulb releases fine particles of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, which is a dangerous substance even in minute quantities.
The particular box of CFL bulbs I bought does not say how much mercury the bulbs contain and what to do in the event that one breaks. The only warning on the box and the bulbs themselves concerns electric shock. So it seems that just as the FDA worries that adequate warnings might scare people away from some pharmaceutical drugs, the EPA worries warnings and safety information on the packaging of CFL bulbs might be bad for business, too.
The bulbs that I bought do carry the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star logo, which means by law they must contain no more than 5 mg mercury, which is the government’s Energy Star standard. But even that standard is considered too high in the European Union and, surprisingly, by the bulb manufacturers themselves. These days, CFL bulbs have an average mercury content of about 3.5 mg. In the E.U., mercury content is capped at 4 mg.
To be fair, I went back to the store and looked at other brands. Some packages say “lamp contains mercury” and “Manage in Accord with Disposal Laws,” but other than that, the toxic nature of these bulbs when broken is invisible.
For more information about CFL bulbs, go to http://www.ewg.org/node/27220