Say goodbye to incandescent bulbs. Say hello to the “new normal”

I missed something pretty big. My life got turned upside down last December so I guess I can see why I missed it. I was looking through videos on YouTube and Google Video today, as I often do, and I came upon some videos about CFLs, Compact Flourescent Lights, particularly how they present different health hazards than incandescents.

We’re used to incandescents. We know you have to be careful storing them and putting them into sockets, lest you drop and break them, or crush them (if improperly stored, or stepped on). They are made of thin glass, so you can get serious cuts from them if you’re not careful. You can electrocute yourself if you try to remove a broken bulb from a fixture without turning the power off. We know all this.

The federal government passed a law with a bunch of energy conservation measures in December. One of its provisions says that it will be illegal for stores to sell incandescent bulbs by the year 2012 2014. What to use instead? CFLs. That’s what everyone seems to be saying anyway. There are LED bulbs on the market now, but they don’t get much play. One review I read of LED bulbs said that their downside is they’re really only good for direct lighting, like a spotlight, penlight, or flashlight, and not so good for lighting a room unless you don’t mind indirect lighting.

CFLs trouble me. Environmentalists used to be concerned about toxins in our environment that could affect our health. They still are concerned with industrial toxic waste sites, but I don’t hear much from them these days about toxins in consumer products. CFLs are an example. I feel like environmentalists are taking their eye off the ball here to favor another set of priorities. Secondly I have the suspicion that some special interests are getting a deal out of this.

As I’ll talk about below, you don’t have to call a toxic waste cleanup company in case you break one of them, but you may want to anyway… Seeing an opportunity, one company I’ve found is selling CFL cleanup and recycling kits for quite a sum.

The following report is from Australia:

It surprises me that environmentalists are so eager to get people to use these things, and are willing to let the issue of hazardous waste disposal be a back burner issue. The report above says that mandatory recycling should take care of the hazard (at least from an environmental standpoint). From where I sit though mandatory recycling isn’t in place yet. Shouldn’t it be?

This strikes me as kind of insane. Basically the message is, “You might be risking your health with these things, but take heart, because you’re preventing global warming.” Somehow I feel like this is like Dumbo’s feather. He thought he needed it to fly, when it was just a symbol, a placebo. Yes, CFLs will save on electricity, but incandescents don’t use that much to begin with. Let’s get some perspective. You’ll save a LOT more by not running TVs/CRTs in your house, running your refrigerator, using an electric stove/oven, using a microwave, and by not running your air conditioning in the summer. This is like focusing on that drip in the kitchen faucet rather than the flood in your basement that occurred because your pipes froze.

These days a lot of people in the environmental and scientific community are concerned about the specter of global warming, CO2 emissions and such. CFLs are supposed to help with this because they consume a fraction of the electricity that incandescents do, last a lot longer, and there’s the good feeling about not putting more waste into landfills. The downside is CFLs contain 5mg of mercury (the Australian report said up to 25mg). Mercury is extremely toxic. Miniscule amounts are dangerous to your health. So long as you do not break a CFL, you’re fine.

You’re encouraged to recycle your bulbs rather than throw them in the trash when they burn out, but from what I’ve read, consumers are not necessarily required to recycle them. It depends on the regulations in your state. You can read more about this here. If you do dispose of them in the trash the EPA asks that you seal each bulb inside two plastic bags beforehand to (hopefully) contain the mercury when the bulbs are crushed by the dump trucks that collect the trash. Somehow I find this to be dubious. Won’t the glass from broken bulbs (or something sharp in the dump truck compactor) puncture the plastic bags?

Home Depot offers a CFL recycling program. Your local community may have a toxic waste disposal site as well where you can drop off your dead CFLs.

With incandescents we’re pretty familiar with what to do if a bulb breaks. You clean up the glass with a broom and pail, use a wet paper towel on a hard surface to collect any small fragments, or use a vacuum cleaner on a rug, and put the broken bulb in the trash. Pretty simple, and takes maybe 10 minutes.

What to do if a CFL breaks? The EPA has some instructions on this. It’s an involved process:

  • Evacuate the room. The reason is that the broken bulb releases mercury as dust/vapor into the room. Close off the room and open windows in it to air it out for 15 minutes. Personally, I’m a bit dubious about the idea of opening the windows, though the idea of inhaling mercury vapor is not appealing. What if it’s a windy day? Couldn’t that spread the dust around the room? The EPA also says to shut off your central heat or air conditioning, since it could spread the mercury dust/vapor to other rooms in the house.
  • Once the room has been aired out: For hard surfaces, clean up the wreckage by carefully scooping up any glass pieces and mercury powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place the debris into a glass jar with a metal lid, or a sealed plastic bag. Do not use a broom or vacuum cleaner on hard surfaces, as this will spread mercury dust. For carpets, the EPA says you can use a vacuum cleaner, but you’ll need to take the vacuum bag out afterwards and put it in a sealed plastic bag immediately. For the newer bagless vacuums you’ll need to dump the contents into a plastic bag, and seal it, and then wipe out the vacuum’s canister.
  • Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining glass fragments and mercury powder (do this both for hard surfaces and carpets. Ugh! Duct tape on carpet!).
  • For a hard surface, wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or wet wipes, and put the paper towel or wipes in a glass jar or plastic bag.

The EPA has special instructions for if the glass and/or powder has come in contact with clothes, bedding, or other soft materials. Basically they’re goners. They don’t recommend you try to wipe or wash off the powder. Don’t put these items in a washing machine as the mercury powder may contaminate it. Basically, if you don’t want this stuff hanging around you, you have to throw out the affected items. Kiss them goodbye. The EPA does say that you can wash what you were wearing at the time when you cleaned up the broken CFL, when they (and you, by the way!) were “exposed to the mercury vapor”, so long as what you were wearing didn’t come in direct contact with the mercury powder (on the floor). Oh…GREAT!

One consolation they offer is that shoes are apparently salvageable. If powder gets on them, just wipe them off with damp paper towels or wet wipes (and put the towels/wet wipes in sealed plastic bags). Somehow, I think I’d just trash the shoes. What if the powder got inside them? We sweat profusely in our shoes. I wouldn’t want to absorb that stuff into my skin, thank you!

The last step, immediately place all waste items outside in the trash, that is if your locality/state allows this. In some areas they require you to take the waste items to a recycling center.

Oh. One other thing. The EPA says the next few times you vacuum the room where the CFL broke, shut off the central heating or AC and open the windows before vacuuming it, and keep the heat/AC off and the windows open for 15 minutes after you’re done. Hmm. So there’s going to be some residue, huh?

Now, think about this. How many people even know they’re supposed to do this?? Maybe 0.0001% 3% of the population? (Update 8-9-08: I was emotional and kind of tired when I wrote this part. My math was way off! I’m just guessing, of course, but this is more along the lines of what I meant to communicate) Some who have a clue will call their local poison center for advice. Most people are going to do what they’d do for a broken incandescent bulb, pick up the debris with their bare hands or use a paper towel or washcloth, and then sweep and/or vacuum the area without getting rid of the vacuum bag, and without ventilating the room first. That’s a potential recipe for mercury poisoning. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if cases of this start showing up years down the road.

How many people do you think are going to think to recycle their CFLs, or put their dead ones in plastic bags before they go in the trash? I’m thinking less than the number of people who bother to recycle bottles, cans, and newsaper today, unless governments and/or manufacturers make this real easy.

Cheer up! At least you’re doing your part to prevent global warming…er, right? Cool! You mean I don’t have to buy a hybrid, too? 🙂

Edit: Just to clarify things, I read here that the government is going to “fade out” the sale of incandescents, starting in 2012. They’ll start with the 100 watt bulbs, ending with the 40 watt bulbs in 2014.

I don’t mind energy efficiency. I just wish the bulbs were safer. If someone came up with a bright bulb (full spectrum light would be nice as well) that was much more energy efficient, like CFLs, and didn’t have the hazardous waste problems I’d be all for it.

—Mark Miller,


10 thoughts on “Say goodbye to incandescent bulbs. Say hello to the “new normal”

  1. Nice – I think you got this just about exactly right.

    On a personal note I got sucked in big time on this. The previous owners of our home here in Lethbridge liked lights – as it turned out there were over 130 bulbs installed.

    There are 16, for example, in the main bathroom – eight of them in a strip over the main mirror – and everything on the main floor is track lighting except for the special arts and crafts style lights…

    So I replaced everything except the outside emergency lighting with CFL bulbs – and, because I couldn’t find any not made in China about one in ten failed and one in thirty broke while being wrestled out of the packaging.

    That was a year before the mercury story broke – so you know what I’m doing now? gradually putting the incandescents back and stocking up on them to coverage breakage pending the widespread availability of usable oled lighting.

  2. Hi Paul! Nice to see you here! 🙂 I think the first time I learned about the mercury danger was that “1/2-Hour Comedy Hour” skit (the last video segment in my post), which aired last year, though I wasn’t sure how seriously to take it. I knew there was mercury in them, but I didn’t know what form it was in. Was it liquid like in a thermometer? That sort of thing. Actually I think the liquid form would be safer (though probably wouldn’t work in them). What I think causes the real health hazard is the fact that the mercury is in a powdery/gaseous state.

    Re: your CFLs

    Wow! I had no idea the DOA rate was that high. I use incandescents in my apartment, though at first I had little objection to CFLs. To me they were just small flourescent bulbs (like the tube kind) as far as the light they produced. I’ve heard complaints from a few people that they’re not as bright as incandescents. My apartment complex is now installing CFLs as standard whenever they’re getting them ready for new tenants. I doubt even the owner knows about the hazards, though I could be wrong. I’m pretty sure most of the tenants don’t.

    The national parks have been using them for several years now, no doubt at the prompting of environmentalists.

    I noticed the CFLs come in those hard-to-open, welded-together plastic packages. Those are hard to open without a good pair of scissors! So sorry to hear they broke on you. I was under the impression that CFLs were sturdier than incandescents. It sounds like they’re not.

    From what I’ve read, Canada was the first to ban incandescents. Other countries, including mine, have been (IMO) blindly following in your lead.

    From what I hear, ALL CFLs are made in China, without exception, no matter what brand you get.

  3. My local power company mailed everyone 2 CFLs, and their newsletter addressed the mercury issue. I will say that I felt a bit better about CFLs after reading it, but still not convinced. Overall, I think that the mercury in a CFL is much less than the mercury produced by a coal plant powering an incandescent. And around here, that’s important since a lot of the power in SC comes from coal (I’m due for a 15% – 18% price hike in January, 50% of which is from the recent coal price rises), and about 1/3 of the bodies of water here are contaminated with mercury. But nonetheless, while the overall mercury benefit of a CFL may be lower, the mercury from a coal plant is miles away and dispersed, while a broken CFL is a small toxic disaster in my own home. That’s a world of difference.

    I am curious why the CFLs aren’t sealed in a way so that even if they break, no mercury escapes. Sure, it’s still a mess when it goes to the landfill (actually, probably no worse than all of the batteries that get thrown out), but at least it isn’t in my carpet.

    CFLs are like ethanol, someone legislated before the unintended consequences were fully publicized, or the hype of the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. If legislators really wanted to save power at the household level, they would ban any TV larger than 24 inches, ban all plasma TVs, and mandate that all TVs be LCD TV. 🙂


  4. @Justin:

    Huh. I didn’t know about mercury and coal burning, nor with batteries. What I had heard was that there are radioactive isotopes in coal, which get released when its burned. So there is some radiation released into the atmosphere from burning coal. Depending on the wind patterns, and distance from the plant, I figure that at some point it’s equivalent to background radiation. Some have said nuclear power would actually be safer than coal, since the radiation is contained during the whole power generation process.

    It was hard for me to communicate, but it’s not as if all quantities of mercury will cause you to get sick. There is for example mercury in seafood, but it’s usually in trace amounts. You’d have to eat a lot of it in a short period of time before you’d get sick from it. Also the amount varies depending on what kind of seafood you eat. If you primarily eat seafood that is caught near the surface of the ocean, you’re likely to get a higher dose than from seafood that’s caught from deeper water, because the food chain works from deep to shallow.

    I agree with you about how the exposure is different between a power plant and in your home. It’s interesting that the power company was somehow trying to make an equivalence between the two. It seems disingenuous to me. I don’t understand why the EPA would have such involved instructions for cleaning up a broken CFL if it wasn’t an issue. Maybe it’s only a problem if there’s repeated exposure in a large house (lots of bulbs to change, more chances for accidents to happen). I honestly don’t know what dosage is toxic.

    I just remember that when I was a kid a thermometer broke in the house, and my mom was able to capture the mercury liquid on a tray. I was able to tilt the tray and watch it move, and prod it with a pencil, but I was NOT to touch it. If I had gotten even a little on my skin I would’ve needed to go to the hospital.

    In the Australian report video I have on here they had a guy who said that mercury is 2nd in toxicity to radioactive materials (though he wasn’t specific).

    I agree with you about the design of CFLs. I wonder why they have to use glass. Why not shatter-proof plastic? Or maybe they could put a plastic bulb around the coil that would absorb the shock, or at least contain the contents if the coil broke from jarring. This would require them to make the coils smaller, but the added safety would be worth it. I don’t have much experience with CFLs. I assume they burn cool like regular flourescents, so melting shouldn’t be a problem.

    I think we have both coal and natural gas power plants, along with a little nuclear power, where I am in CO. I noticed that my power bills have gone up this year. It used to be 9 cents/kwh. This summer it’s been 15 cents/kwh. I’ve heard that the price of natural gas has been going up quite a bit. Here in the city where I live we have an additional “carbon tax”, in the name of global warming, which adds a bit to the price. We have optional wind power out here, which relieves users from the “carbon tax”, but you pay an arm and a leg for it.

  5. I know with the seafood, the *size* of the fish makes a world of difference too, as does the fat content. The size is imporant, because bigger fish are older, and therefore had more exposure to mercury. Fat content is important, since the fat stores a lot of mercury. This makes big, fatty fish like tuna and shark relatively high mercury. It won’t kill you, but they advise that young children, the elderly, and pregnant women not eat these fish too often.

    The power company did not explicitly point out the relationshipo between saving power and less mercury in the air from coal, that is a question I raised myself. I would be curious to know how that works.

    The whole thing reminds me of the Freon/R134a thing from the 80’s. DuPont’s patent on Freon (R12) expired, and they came up with R134a. R134a was not as good as R12, notg nearly as efficient. But they did a study, and discovered that R134a was not nearly as bad for the ozone layer as R12. Now, here’s the ironic part: R134a is bad for the ozone, but not *as* bad as R134a… but because R134a is not as good of a coolant as R12, you need to use more of it… so much more, than R134a’s overall damage is worse than R12. But R134a is the legal one now, and R12 is banned. 🙂 I really do wonder if the environmental impact of the CFL bulbs is, in sum, more than the impact of the extra power to run incandescents. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it is.


  6. It’s important to distinguish the different states of mercury. You can drink a thimble of liquid mercury and it most likely will not kill you. Put a drop on a hot plate and turn it to gas and it will most likely will kill you. A few drops on the burner will likely kill everyone in the house. There are stories of people melting down gold only to find them and everyone else in the house dead since the metals they were heating contained trace amounts of mercury. Mercury in gas form is VERY dangerous.

    Nice discussion Mark.

  7. @Steve:

    Thanks for your input. I’ve heard about this with other toxic substances, that the path of entry into the body is real important, whether through the skin, through the digestive tract, or through the respiratory system. Some paths can lead to no harm at all, others can lead to serious problems. It’s good to get as much accurate information about mercury out there.

  8. Thanks for raising awareness of this serious issue. One thing I think needs addressing (besides the increased health problems) is the actual carbon cost of proper clean-up of these dead fluoros. It strikes me that it’s likely to be way beyond any savings on reduced power consumption. I believe these may be misrepresented if these lights are used in areas where they are frequently turned on and off – apparently substantially shortening their life. Such areas are toilets, cupboards and storage rooms. I firmly believe that there is a need to retain traditional bulbs in these areas on a simple economic analysis.

    Where I live, door-to-door canvassers are distributing two new fluoros free to every household signing away to the providing company the nominated carbon savings as a tradeable carbon credit – so, yes, there are vested interests here. They are as persistent as cable and phone service contract pests. Having installed some of the early thin spectrum fluoros, we have a hostility to claims of illumination equivalence. Several friends have commented on poor visibility and reading difficulties with this ‘friendly’ light source.

    A pilot acquaintance has recently lost his job in China and had his licence suspended due to cognitive function tests showing up Mercury poisoning. Apparent signs include memory blanks such as loss of recognition. Whilst his case is probably diet related, the fact remains that Mercury poisoning can not only kill, it can endanger quite a lot of lives dependant on normal brain function in key personnel, too.


  9. @Ian:

    When I wrote the comment about special interests getting something out of the ban on incandescents I was thinking more about the companies that produce CFLs. I hadn’t thought about companies that sell carbon offsets. That sounds pretty cynical, because the organization passing out the CFLs can’t guarantee that everyone is going to use them.

    I have been hearing stories here and there that carbon credits are turning into a racket in some ways. Some have found ways to do things that are benign, kind of make-work solutions (I guess an analogy is breaking a window so you can fix it), or that are harmful to the environment in some way, but claim they’ve reduced carbon emissions, and have enabled themselves to sell carbon offsets. I mean, hey, if I could commit to slowing down my breathing rate to a certain number of breaths per minute, or junking my car and doing without one, I suppose I could sell a carbon offset as well. 😛

  10. Pingback: I was wrong. We help define “the new normal” | Tekkie

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