Tech Myths: Boosting Reality

CFLs: Enter the Hot Zone

The logical flaw in the whole “CFL mercury is the devil, so use incandescents!” argument is that incandescents burn more electricity, half of America’s electricity still comes from coal burning, and one byproduct of burning coal is the release of mercury into the atmosphere. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, only 35% of the released mercury is reclaimed by air pollution control devices. So if you have 8,000 hours of use from each type of bulb, the total mercury unleashed by a CFL is 1.2 mg from electricity use and 0.6 mg from landfilling (assuming no recycling). The incandescent bulb will account for 5.8 mg of mercury from its higher electricity use. And since we all know that many, many people will landfill their CFLs instead of properly recycling them, what would happen if nobody recycled their CFLs? “If all 290 million CFLs sold in 2007 were sent to a landfill (versus recycled, as a worst case),” notes the EPA, “they would add 0.16 metric tons, or 0.16 percent, to U.S. mercury emissions caused by humans.”

Clearly, the mercury case against CFLs on an environmental level is bogus. The net benefit from cutting overall electricity consumption is obvious, plus there’s a household benefit. Assuming you don’t break any and incur a $2,400 cleanup bill, the EPA estimates that the savings in electricity costs can total $50 per household per year.

And speaking of breaking CFLs, what if you break a bulb and have a household hot zone on your hands? First off, don’t touch the spill with your bare hands. Use disposable rubber gloves. Open up the area ASAP, leaving windows and doors open for at least 15 minutes and preferably for an hour while shutting off the area from the rest of the house. (Make sure the central heating/AC is turned off to prevent in-home circulation.) This step alone will eliminate most of the problem since mercury vapor is, uh, vapor and will dissipate into the surrounding environment. In fact, by the time the toxics specialist arrived at Bridges’s home, according to the Ellsworth article, “the air in the bedroom at the 3-foot level measured between 31 to 49 ng/m3 of mercury, depending on the location.” Keep in mind that 300 ng/m3 is the magic danger number.

With ventilation done, proceed to cleanup. Anything that touches the mercury-tinged glass will have to be sealed in a jar or plastic bag and thrown out. Use masking or duct tape, sticky side out, and pick up any small glass shards with it. The EPA says it’s then OK to vacuum the spill area provided you dispose of the vacuum bag in a sealed container. Clothes that come into contact with mercury vapor by proximity can be washed while clothes that actually touch the mercury spill should be discarded. And that’s about it. Don’t call for a HazMat crew. No need to max out your credit card for an in-house version of the Exxon Valdez clean-up. Just use your brain. You’ll likely get more mercury from eating certain fish than from being around a broken CFL.