Safety Concerns Emerge in Energy-Efficient Light Debate

By Fred Lucas | July 7, 2008 | 8:06pm EDT

( - At a time when fluorescent bulbs are gaining in popularity among global warming activists, politicians and consumers, Brandy Bridges discovered a dark side to energy-efficient lighting.

With Congress and state legislatures considering fluorescent-only legislation, the Prospect, Maine, resident is going against the grain - removing every compact fluorescent bulb from her home just months after installing them as part of a remodeling project.

The decision to take them down was prompted by safety concerns. Earlier, Bridges dropped a fluorescent bulb in her daughter's room and it shattered, leaving potentially unsafe levels of mercury inside the rug.

At the suggestions of the state's Department of Environmental Protection, she now has to pay $2,000 for a professional environmental clean up. Her seven-year-old daughter sleeps in the family room, as her room is sealed off by plastic.

"I bought the bulbs because I wanted to do my part for the environment and save money," Bridges told Cybercast News Service Wednesday. "You can save 20 cents per month on your electric bill - but spend $2,000 for the cleanup."

Broken fluorescent bulbs can release mercury vapors that can affect a person's brain, spinal cord, kidneys and liver, causing symptoms such as trembling hands, memory loss and difficulty moving, according to a fact sheet on fluorescent bulbs published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The mercury level in fluorescent bulbs is quite low when compared to a thermometer.

The safety issue could become a central part of the environmental/climate change/energy debate, since Congress and 13 state legislatures are considering proposals that would ban or partially ban the older inefficient incandescent bulbs in favor of efficient fluorescent bulbs that the EPA says use about 75 percent less energy while lasting six times longer.

Already this year Australia announced it would phase out the sale of incandescent light by 2010 and Canada announced a phase out by 2012.

In Bridges' case, the shattered glass couldn't be easily removed from the carpet and reached a level of 1,939 ng/m3 (nanograms per cubic meter) in the single area. For her daughter's entire room, the levels in the air were well below 300, considered the threshold for safety.

The largest sources of mercury come from burning fossil fuels, according to the EPA. A power plant will emit 10 milligrams of mercury to produce electricity to run an incandescent bulb, but just 2.4 milligrams to run a fluorescent bulb.

"There are concerns about mercury, but a fluorescent bulb contains one-fifth the mercury of a watch battery," said Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental group. "There is less mercury emitted from these bulbs than from a coal-fired power plant that will continue to burn with incandescent power."

A global shift from incandescent to fluorescent bulbs could close 270 coal-fired power plants, Brown said.

Philips Lighting is phasing out the manufacturing of the incandescent bulb, and Wal-Mart has increased its sales of fluorescents, Brown said. Meanwhile, India and Britain are also considering measures to promote fluorescent lights.

"The ban the bulb movement is an early victory in the war on carbon emissions," Brown said.

'Hysterical bandwagon issue'

But Timothy Lee, director for legal and public affairs for the Center for Individual Freedom, a conservative think tank, said a ban would be "perfectly silly."

"Consumers should be able to make a free choice," he said. "If you want to pay for a longer lasting bulb, that's fine. But a ban would affect the poor and middle class a lot more."

Some fluorescent bulbs can cost $5 or more, compared to a regular light bulb that costs under a dollar, Lee noted.

And if incandescent bulbs are banned, Lee wondered, would mercury in fluorescent bulbs become the next target of environmentalists?

"They jump on one hysterical bandwagon issue after another," he said. "If you banned incandescent bulbs, they would have to create a new boogie man. It's a never ending cycle of environmental hysteria."

Considering the safety risks, consumers should definitely have a choice, said Bridges who is trying to get the word out that the bulbs can be dangerous.

"It's ridiculous," Bridges said. "If the mercury in the bulbs is many times higher than the danger level, people should have a choice."

If a bulb breaks, according to the EPA, a person should immediately open a window to disperse of any mercury vapors, not touch the area where the bulb was broken, carefully sweep up the fragments and wipe the area with a disposable paper towel to remove all glass fragments.

The EPA warns people not to use a vacuum. If a bulb burns out, the EPA suggests sealing it in a safe container before disposal.

In most cases a person can clean up the mess themselves if they're cautious. But in her case, Bridges said, the state environmental officials warned her to have a professional do the job, something she's still saving up the money to pay for.

An entire bag full of her daughter's toys were found to have had severely dangerous levels of mercury and were discarded, she added.

"My daughter is very upset. She can't play with any of her toys," Bridges said. "But my baby would sit in that room. I'm not going to take any chances."

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