Well the headline in The Press says Old light bulbs to be switched off but it could just as easily be my headline. Given the supposed interest in toxic waste it is the height of hypocracy that environmentalists are so in favour of CFL builbs which contain 5mg of mercury.
Jeanette Fitzsimons, that paragon of common sense and arch environmentalists, says:
"The traditional light bulb is very old technology - and very inefficient. Only five per cent of the energy it uses generates light the rest is wasted as heat."
Wasted is a bit strong. After all, to the extent that your lightbulbs don't heat your house, you need to provide heating another way, particularly in winter. You could certainly argue that the heat is wasted on a hot day, but most of the time it is useful heat.
The second point I want to make is that these new CFL bulbs have their own risks. I have installed them all around the place, but am now replacing several of them with old incandescent bulbs due to the risk of mercury poisoning from breakages. Most of our fittings have no protection against being smashed by a ball, stick, toy or other object inside or outside the house. The same applies to rubbish collection, which often involves crushing the rubbish bags which will smash bulbs.
This issue has had much discussion, for example:
"The problem with the bulbs is that they'll break before they get to the landfill. They'll break in containers, or they'll break in a dumpster or they'll break in the trucks. Workers may be exposed to very high levels of mercury when that happens," says John Skinner, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, the trade group for the people who handle trash and recycling.
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin, and it's especially dangerous for children and fetuses. Most exposure to mercury comes from eating fish contaminated with mercury,
The EPA has published steps showing what you should do if a CFL bulk breaks. For example:
- Have people and pets leave the room, and don't let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.
- Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.
- If clothing or bedding materials come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb that may stick to the fabric, the clothing or bedding should be thrown away. Do not wash such clothing or bedding because mercury fragments in the clothing may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage.
- The next several times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window before vacuuming.
I have also read an analysis that says that provided children are not present, and you open all the windows to the room, close the door and leave the room for an hour before doing anything, most of the mercury will evapourate and it will be safe to re-enter. But how can you be sure that your children will follow this procedure if they smash a bullb? Would you put old mercury thermometers around the house for the children to play with?
So in summary, the claims of waste are overdone, the builbs are not recyclable and not safe to go through the normal rubbish collection / crushing process, and they are highly toxic if smashed in the home. Perhaps we should wait until this technology is more mature. As usual, environmentalists are jumping the gun.