CFLs: And the Government Says...
If you assume that the Environmental Protection Agency, the national bodies behind the Kyoto Protocol, Al Gore, and all those other tree-huggers are all enmeshed in some insidious plot to...do something really...ummm…that they’re all out to get us, somehow, then disregard the following paragraphs that detail the EPA's view.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its ENERGY STAR program have a decent summary of the whole CFL and mercury rationale available here. In essence, it comes down to watts burned. Yes, incandescent bulbs use 75% more energy than CFLs, and 90% of an incandescent bulb’s energy is wasted as heat rather than light, but let’s save that whole global warming issue for some other time.
The EPA states that CFLs contain an average of 4 mg of mercury within their tubing, although this number continues to decline. When a bulb is new, this comes in the form of mercury vapor, most of which will bond to the tube’s inner walls over the course of its life. Once the bulb reaches its end of life, if it is disposed of in a landfill and breaks there, about 14% of its original mercury content, less than 1 mg, will be released into the atmosphere. This is nothing new. We’re all used to the idea of inconveniently recycling things like batteries and computer equipment in order to keep toxic chemicals out of landfills.
[Image note: In case you want to know what your first grandchild might look like with a toe growing from his forehead, I found an Ananova story with his image of a 73-year-old Chinese man who uses his “horn” (an inoperable tumor) to lift bricks as part of his kung fu practice. The story does not discuss the ambient mercury levels in his Jiangsu Province homeland.]