Lightbulb moment: The mercury dilemma with compact fluorescent lights

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The Four Sister’s Housing Cooperative, a leafy, three-building complex with over 400 residents near Vancouver’s bustling waterfront, has replaced all incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFL) in public areas. The underground parking lot, hallways, office space, common rooms, laundry rooms and outdoor lights now only use CFLs. According to the Four Sister’s maintenance committee, the CFLs were installed to reduce energy bills.

The cooperative’s decision to replace conventional bulbs with CFLs is an example of a broader trend. California, Canada, the European Union and Australia have opted, or are considering banning incandescent light bulbs in favor of CFLs. Cuba and Venezuela use CFLs on a wide scale.

Less energy, yes, but less mercury?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, CFLs use 75 percent less energy and last six times longer than standard incandescent light bulbs. While each light bulb has 5 milligrams of mercury (the size of the ball point of a pen), the EPA argues that CFLs will help reduce mercury emissions.

“A power plant [fed with coal, the most common fuel used in the U.S. to generate electricity] will emit 10 mg. of mercury to produce the electricity to run an incandescent bulb compared to only 2.4 mg. of mercury to run a CFL for the same time,” according to the EPA.

These claims are echoed by environmental groups such as the Vancouver-based David Suzi Foundation, Greenpeace and Environmental Defense. They point out that CFLs will also generate fewer greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, because a smaller amount of fossil fuels need to be burned to produce electricity.

Concerns remain

However, critics are concerned that the EPA and environmentalists are minimizing the dangers of mercury contamination from CFLs. Mercury, an essential component of CFLs, is a neurotoxin that the EPA classifies as a hazardous household material.

According to the EPA, “Exposure to mercury, a toxic metal, can affect our brain, spinal cord, kidneys and liver.”

The U.S. National Institutes of Health reports, “Exposures to very small amounts of these compounds [mercury] can result in devastating neurological damage and death. For fetuses, infants and children, the primary health effects of mercury are on neurological development. Even low levels of mercury exposure, such as result from a mother’s consumption of methyl mercury in dietary sources, can adversely affect the brain and nervous system. Impacts on memory, attention, language and other skills have been found in children exposed to moderate levels in the womb.”

“I feel it’s very important to warn people these ‘green’ bulbs contain mercury, which will end up in landfills throughout the country if we make the switch to them,” said Andrew Michrowski of the Ottawa-based Planetary Association for Clean Energy Inc. “In addition to filling our landfills with mercury, if the bulbs break you will be exposed to the mercury they contain.”

Michrowski urged people not to buy CFLs.

Where does the mercury go?

According to Ron Pushchak, a professor at Canada’s Ryerson University School of Occupational Health and Safety, CFLs are often broken when thrown out. The mercury vaporizes and travels with the wind in a northern direction and is deposited into the environment. It is then absorbed into plant and animal systems and soils.

EPA press officer Roxanne Smith acknowledged in an e-mail interview with the World that CFLs pose environmental risks. “Mercury releases can occur if CFLs break during transportation or during placement in the landfill,” she wrote. “Inorganic forms of mercury may be transformed into methyl mercury, which can cycle through the environment.” Small amounts of mercury can cause environmental problems for decades, ending up in the soil, water, air and living organisms.

Smith said that the “EPA does not have data on the accumulation of mercury from CFLs in landfills, so we cannot speculate on what may happen over time. Because mercury is an element, it remains at risk for release from landfills forever.”

EPA says it outweighs the risks

Smith reiterated that the environmental benefits of CFLs outweigh the risks. She said CFLs will help reduce mercury emissions because coal-fired plants, which account for 40 percent of mercury emissions in the U.S., will need to generate less electricity to power a CFL than a conventional bulb.

However, the EPA already plans to reduce mercury emissions generated by coal-fired plants by 70 percent by 2018, with or without CFLs, Michrowski pointed out.

Better recycling programs would help

One of the principal problems is the absence of a national curbside recycling pick up program for CFLs to prevent the release of mercury into the environment. What exists now is a hodgepodge of collection schemes that are not always easy to access. In some places, there are no recycling facilities available and it is left to the consumer to dispose of CFLs in a safe manner.

“The companies producing and selling these bulbs don’t have any economic interest in paying for a collection and disposal system, nor [for] the education of consumers. They just want to sell more product,” said Marc Brodine, chair of the U.S. Communist Party’s Environmental Commission.

The danger exists that tens of thousands of old CFLs will end up broken before or by the time they reach landfill sites, spewing more mercury into the environment, already at an alarmingly high level, according to scientists. Even if a recycling system were set up, there would likely be significant number of people who choose not to participate, something that occurs with all voluntary recycling programs.

Debate erupts for green builders

Michael Driedger, a Vancouver-based architect and building specialist who works with builders interested in using new green technologies to lower energy consumption, is aware of the flaws and limitations of CFLs. A major debate has erupted within his profession about the pros and cons of CFLs, and many architects are “now calling for lower mercury in lighting systems [CFLs].”

A voluntary rating program called Leadership, Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), established by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council to promote environmentally safe, sustainable building materials and technology, is now calling on architects and builders to use low-mercury CFLs.

“Many people, especially in the lighting industry, are waiting for the lighting industry to develop mercury-free light emitting diode (LED) lighting as a safe substitute for CFLs,” said Driedger. He said large companies such as General Electric are investing a lot of money to develop LEDs.

LED possibilities, limitations

While LED technology is available, technical barriers still need to be overcome. For instance, to use LEDs in residential housing an electrical converter would have to be installed to each light socket because LEDs use much less electricity than either a CFL or conventional bulb, said Driedger. The other hurdle is that LEDs do not generate any heat, so lights become frosted during cold weather. LEDs produce a point light but little diffuse light. LEDs would have to be mounted in new fixtures that reflect light off the ceiling to produce diffuse light, Driedger pointed out.

The lighting industry is now only targeting the commercial market, selling LED lights for outside fixtures — and Christmas lights — “because you can leave them on forever and there is hardly any electricity being used. In the next five years there will be a really big push for LED lights to become more mainstream,” Driedger predicted.

Natural light is best

In the meantime, as a safe alternative to CFLs, Michrowski recommended the following: “Use natural light to its fullest effect, including scheduling your tasks to take advantage of natural light; buy smaller wattage bulbs; use candles; buy LED bulbs. They do not contain mercury.”

Tim Pelzer ( is a Canadian journalist who writes frequently on international issues.