Compact Flourescent Bulbs - The Great Debate

A Bright Idea with a Dim Future?

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We replaced many of our household lightbulbs with compact flourescents a couple of years ago. With all the talk of energy savings and a longer life-span, it seemed like a good idea despite the higher cost and the funky glow. Now that my mom has confessed to breaking 3 this year (even she is not sure how this happened) I'm starting to question the practicality of this switch.

Did you know that the mercury contained in compact flourescent bulbs is released when the bulbs break and requires specific cleaning procedures? My mom didn't, and I'm not sure if I would have known either. My mom did what she would have done with any other lightbulb - she picked up the big pieces and then vacuumed up the little stuff and went on with her day. She didn't realize that she was dealing with a hazardous waste (also not used to having to read the fine print on the back of her lightbulb box). How many people out there are like my mom, trying to do the right thing and unknowingly exposing themselves and others to the toxic mercury contained inside each bulb?

Worried for my mom and my family I did a little research and have found myself more confused than ever about which way to go. According to an article at Popular Mechanics titled, Compact Flourescent Bulbs and Mercury: Reality Check, my mom and others like her have little to worry about. According to the article, Russ Leslie at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute claims that “Though it’s nothing to laugh at, unless you wipe up mercury [without gloves] and then lick your hand, you’re probably going to be okay.”

We all have different ideas about what it means to "probably be okay" so I looked further and found the US Environmental Protection Agency's recommendations for the clean-up of CFLs. Take a look for yourself and see what you make of the directions. It sounds like broken bulbs on hard surfaces are not such a big deal, but don't break them on your rug or any other fabric and expect a safe clean-up.

I'm really not that worried about my mom and her 3 improperly cleaned up mercury spills. She's probably been exposed to more than she should have, but she's fully developed, otherwise healthy and now that she knows what she's done, she'll never let it happen again. I am however, pretty concerned about this issue as it applies to my son and any of our future fetuses or children. Knowing that mercury is most damaging to them I'm not sure if I really want to be taking that risk. Sure we're saving energy, but there's something terrifying about the thought of accidentally sprinkling mercury dust around my home when my child and future children are developing. And I have to admit, knowing that she used her vacuum and inadvertantly spread mercury all through the house, I get a pretty worried just thinking about all of the exposure we've had visiting my parents all the time.

I'm also pretty concerned about where all of these bulbs are going to end up when they finally do burn out. Will people utilize the household hazardous waste programs that exist near them, or will they toss them into the trash and send them off to the landfills, where they'll break in the trash compactors and slowly contaminate local water supplies?

I have a lot of faith in people wanting to do the right things in this world, but I'm accutely aware of the ignorance that perpetuates so many of our social and environmental problems. If I have any message to share in this post, aside from urging you to read the information that's out there and decide for yourself, it's this:

If you are not ready to dispose of the end products properly, then don't make the switch to compact flourescent bulbs. Considering the end result before starting something is always a good method, and one that we could all do a bit more of.

Now you know what I'm thinking. What do you think?

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