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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, September 11, 2008

Shedding light on a dangerous problem:
Mercury-laden bulbs need to be recycled

Illustration by Forest Byrd

Most of us have started buying those curly-cue light bulbs. Switching from incandescent bulbs seems like a win-win — it saves on energy, which is good for the environment, and it saves money since the new bulbs use so much less electricity. They generate light by heating gases in a glass tube.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has pushed the compact fluorescent light bulbs because, it says, lighting accounts for about a fifth of a home’s electric bill and Energy Star CFL bulbs use up to three-quarters less electricity than incandescent bulbs, and last up to 10 times longer. The average life span of a CFL bulb is five years and each bulb saves $30 or more in energy costs.

The changeover, says the EPA, will prevent greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global climate change.

So far, so good.

But there’s a hidden danger — a danger many aren’t aware of. About 4 milligrams of mercury, an amount that would cover the tip of a ballpoint pen, are sealed in each bulb, according to the EPA. That amount, according to Stanford University research on mercury, is enough to contaminate up to six thousand gallons of water beyond levels that are safe to drink.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that can cause kidney and brain damage. Exposure to mercury is particularly dangerous for children and pregnant women.

The EPA makes a valid point that, even though CFL bulbs contain mercury, using them contributes less mercury to the environment than using regular incandescent bulbs. Incandescent bulbs use far more electricity, much of which comes from coal-fired power plants — the biggest source of mercury emissions in the air.

The mercury isn’t released from fluorescent bulbs unless the bulb is broken. Bulb-users should be aware that, if a bulb breaks, they should clear the room of pets and people and air the room for 15 minutes or more, shutting off central forced-air heating or cooling systems. Detailed instructions are available online at the EPA website on how to deal with cleanup if a CFL bulb breaks at home.

Glass pieces and powder should be picked up using stiff paper and placed in a glass jar with a metal lid. Sticky tape should be used to pick up remaining pieces. Gloves should be worn as the spill is cleaned and the refuse should be double-bagged.

A vacuum cleaner shouldn’t be used because it will put mercury in the air, nor should a broom be used because it will break the mercury into smaller droplets, which can spread.

Mercury should never be flushed down a drain because it can pollute the septic tank or sewage treatment plant. For the same reason, clothing with mercury shouldn’t be put in a washing machine.

But a larger problem than an occasional mishap at home is what to do with a burned-out bulb. When bulbs are discarded, they are likely to break.

While the government has pushed CFL bulbs, it has launched no effective campaign to educate the public about their dangers and it has made no provisions to recycle the bulbs.

Workers hauling trash may well be exposed to high levels of mercury when the bulbs break. And the bulbs can contaminate the soil where they break. A huge amount of mercury will enter the waste stream when the first wave of bulbs reaches the end of their five-year life span.

Some municipalities and some states have outlawed putting fluorescent bulbs in with general garbage, but in most states, it’s legal. Recycling the bulbs should be part of the federal program pushing their use as incandescent bulbs are phased out. We still believe that is the best solution.

Being realists, though, we can see that state and local governments — as well as individuals — will be left, once again, to bear the burden. The matter first came to our attention last month when village trustees in Voorheesville discussed a recycling program in New Scotland. We don’t blame the trustees for not wanting to incur more expenses. They suggested residents could store their burned-out CFL bulbs at home until the annual Hazardous Waste Day in May and recycle them then. We urge them to do so.

But, knowing what we do of human nature, we think it’s likely most will toss their bulbs in the trash. So we commend the town of New Scotland for sponsoring a program to allow its residents to recycle the harmful bulbs year-round. We encourage other municipalities to do the same.

 Sometimes a carrot works better than a stick.

The EPA recently fined the local Macy’s, at Crossgates Mall, for improperly disposing of hazardous waste. The federal agency found that the Macy’s here and in Garden City did not have a system to “properly identify and handle” the used mercury laden-bulbs. Since the December 2007 complaint, Macy’s Retail Holdings, Inc. agreed to pay nearly $50,000 in fines, based on maximum penalties for state and federal laws. Macy’s also agreed to change its policy on discarding the bulbs.

“Something like this is not atypical,” an EPA spokesman, John Senn, told us of how often stores like Macy’s are fined.

That’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the millions and millions of individuals across the country who will be discarding their bulbs in the trash.

“They should not go out in the regular garbage,” said Senn.

Not only does proper recycling prevent the release of mercury, it also allows for the re-use of the glass and metal that makes up the bulbs.

Individuals want to be responsible, but need leadership to make a safer world for us all. Recycling is a bright idea; we need to start now.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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