Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb (CFL) – The Good and the Bad

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb (CFL)

Environmentalists would like you to believe the energy efficient Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFLs) are the next best thing to sliced bread. That’s because they use roughly 75% less electricity compared to the normal incandescent bulbs. Each household using CFLs will draw less power from the electrical grid thus lessening the amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. As a result, we will save the world from certain global warming apocalyptic doom. Wal-Mart, the largest retail store in the world, has embraced the CFL and has dedicated itself to selling 100,000,000 of the new CFL’s this year alone (2007).

At first glance, one could easily jump on board thinking they too can make a difference and save our environment. But if you ask yourself a couple questions, you quickly realize that these new bulbs, although more efficient, pose a much greater risk to the environment than the energy hungry incandescent bulbs they are meant to replace.

True, the compact fluorescent light bulbs produce less heat and create the same amount of light as a normal incandescent bulb. That means, they use far less electricity and are far more efficient when creating light. So what makes these new light bulbs so efficient? Some new chemical or material that has extraordinary powers?


Nope, just good ‘ol mercury. That’s right, mercury the neurotoxin. The second most toxic element to man (plutonium being the first). The same toxic stuff that causes births defects when found in our water supply. The same stuff that has been removed from glass thermometers we use to stick in our mouths due to health concerns. But to be dangerous, mercury has to be introduced into the bloodstream or inhaled which isn’t that easy to do because at room temperature, mercury is in liquid form. In other words, you would have to eat the mercury or somehow heat it up and turn it to vapor, then inhale it.

So let’s take a closer look at how these bulbs work. When you turn on your Compact Florescent Light bulb, the internal ballast heats the mercury. As it gradually heats, the mercury transitions into a gaseous state (that’s why some have a slow start-up until achieving full brightness). If you happen to break a bulb while it is powered on, the mercury vapor can briefly be in a state where someone could potentially inhale it.

Although a single bulb contains just a tiny bit of mercury and would most certainly never cause you harm, why does the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledge this possibility by producing a cleanup procedure on how best to handle a broken CFL? Most odd. If they are harmless, then I shouldn’t have to worry if one breaks.

CFL broken

If the risk of inhalation isn’t that dangerous, what’s the big deal? Well, the real danger lurks in how we dispose of them. When a CFL dies, they cannot be thrown away in the trash. Why? Because they contain our good friend mercury, which is considered a toxic waste. In some states it is illegal! Mercury will easily contaminate the ground-water supply where it could re-enter your house through city pipes or well water. Once a ground-water reservoir is contaminated it would cost billions of dollars to clean up, but only after hundreds of people get sick.

So, if you can’t throw it away, how do you get rid of a CFL? Well, the Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t come up with a good way yet. In fact, there really isn’t a way to dispose of the CFLs that’s convenient.

To properly throw away a CFL, you have to save the bulb and drive to a special hazardous waste facility that will dispose of the mercury in a safe manner. Now, how many people do you think would be willing to drive to one of these special depots even if that meant driving 15 miles each direction just to throw away a light bulb? Not to mention, the gasoline they would use driving to and from the disposal site will create far more CO2 than had they not replaced their incandescent bulb with a CFL in the first place.

Most people will simply toss them in the trash and think to themselves “eh, it’s only one bulb. It’s not going to hurt a thing”. Well, I hate to tell you, but if you dumped all 100,000,000 light bulbs sold by Walmart, you would quickly have several toxic super-fund sites across the country. Worse yet, some of the mercury contained inside the CFLs will most likely never make it into the landfills, because the fragile bulbs will break in the homeowners trash cans thus leaking mercury into their garage or their yard. Garbage collectors, children, and family pets will be exposed to the mercury and not even know it.

If you are truly interested in protecting the environment, think twice about buying these CFLs until a proper recycling program has been established in your area. At this point in time, we are potentially replacing the CO2 problem with a mercury problem; a far worse problem to deal with. The best choice at the moment is to continue using the incandescent light bulbs until LED bulbs become cheaper to produce or a convenient way of recycling CFL’s has been established.

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