published Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Congress, light bulb rules and mercury

  • photo
    A compact fluorescent light bulb is seen in Philadelphia. Having to buy a squiggly fluorescent light bulb is an affront to personal freedom, some lawmakers are saying as the House decides whether to overturn a law setting new energy-efficiency standards for the bulbs. (AP)

Maybe you like the new, energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs, or maybe you like the more familiar incandescent bulbs. But whichever you prefer, do you think Congress was right in voting to ban, within a few years, the sale of most incandescent bulbs, in order to promote the sale of the new bulbs?

Before you answer that, look at the contrast between cleaning up after you break a traditional bulb and the steps you have to go through when you break one of the new bulbs. Cleaning up one of the old bulbs is simple: Pick up the big pieces and sweep or vacuum up the rest.

But consider the recommendations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for cleaning up after one of the new bulbs breaks:

“Before cleanup

• “Have people and pets leave the room.

• “Air out the room for 5-10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment.

• “Shut off the central forced air heating/air-conditioning system, if you have one.

• “Collect materials needed to clean up broken bulb:

• “stiff paper or cardboard;

• “sticky tape;

• “damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes (for hard surfaces); and

• “a glass jar with a metal lid or a sealable plastic bag.

“During cleanup

• “Be thorough in collecting broken glass and visible powder.

• “Place cleanup materials in a sealable container.

“After cleanup

• “Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of properly. Avoid leaving any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.

• “If practical, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the heating/air conditioning system shut off for several hours.”

Whew! Are you tired yet?

The reason for the extensive cleanup rules is that the new bulbs contain mercury, which can be hazardous. The EPA says the amount of mercury is small, but that “if you are concerned about the risk to your health from a potential exposure to mercury, consult your physician.”

The website on cleaning up the broken bulbs says, in addition to the steps listed above, “This page presents only the most important steps to reduce exposure to mercury vapor from a broken bulb.” It then directs readers to “the detailed recommendations.”

More detailed than the long process above?

Our point isn’t that the new bulbs are bad, but that Americans may have legitimate reasons not to choose them. And that should be their choice, not Washington’s.

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conservative said...

Ah, but look at all those jobs, wonderful, high paying government jobs, with all those benefits too! Let's not overlook the service to mankind. The person at the hotline number will have many hours of training to ensure that you dispose of your bulb in an enviornmentally safe manner (I'll just wait untill it's dark). Too much hold time in your busy schedule? Then insist on more operators, which will mean more jobs! Pass this bill, pass this bill!

September 27, 2011 at 8:50 a.m.
nucanuck said...

The road to lower energy consumption will pose much to debate.

September 27, 2011 at 10:19 a.m.
LibDem said...

Innovation is risky. The status quo is safe. Remember how comfortable we were with candles?

September 27, 2011 at 10:37 a.m.
LibDem said...

Curiously, the site referenced is Veolia, a commercial recycling operation, with a vested interest in complex recylcing procedures.

(L4F: I'm reading "Atlas Shrugged". It's not easy for an old liberal. I may not be smart enough for this.)

September 27, 2011 at 10:44 a.m.
prairiedog said...

It's a very simple fact that replacing incandescent bulbs with fluorescent bulbs saves 75% of the electricity required for lighting. I lived in California a few years ago when their electric rates went up overnight, and replacing the bulbs in my house with compact fluorescent bulbs brought my bill back down to where it had been before the increase. It makes good sense for each of us, for the electricity producers and for environmentalists concerned about CO2 emissions from power plants. An even better solution is the LED bulb, which uses 90% less power, lasts basically a person's lifetime, and has no problems with mercury. This is one case where Congress has done something positive for everyone, and it will end up costing each consumer much less in the long run. Also, summer air conditioning bills will be reduced because the newer bulbs produce much less heat than incandescent bulbs. The only bad thing I've found about using the newer bulbs is that it takes more to heat the house in the winter, however, if you heat with electricity, it's a wash. As for the mercury, burning coal also releases mercury which ends up in fish, so using less power and requiring less coal is a good thing. Congress banned lead from gasoline, made racial discrimination illegal, and tons of other measures which, in the end, benefit us. A lot of their stuff is pure BS, but this one makes sense.

September 27, 2011 at 10:46 a.m.
hambone said...

I replaced all the incandescent bulbs in my house with compact flourescents over two years ago, for all the reasons mentioned.

The one thing I would like to point out is while this TFP opinion cries about the clean-up of a broken compact flourescent I have yet to have one break! They are tougher than the fragile incandescent.

Seems to me that getting the base of a broken incandescent bulb out of the light fixture is a bigger hazzard than cleaning up a broken compact flourescent!!

September 27, 2011 at 6:22 p.m.
conservative said...

hambone- no hazard when you turn the light switch off.

September 27, 2011 at 6:58 p.m.
EaTn said...

The energy saving bulb mandate is nothing compared to the energy saving ethanol fiasco which has resulted in huge inflated food prices practically across the board. Unfortunately this is bipartisanship at it's worst.

September 27, 2011 at 7:16 p.m.
rolando said...

A few important things not mentioned...

When you flip on a fluorescent bulb, to get the advertised long life, you can only use that bulb 3 hours a day, all at once.

Flipping one on and off -- as in a closet, bath, hallway/stairwell, basement, etc -- drastically shortens its life, so it is roughly on par with an instant-on incandescent.

The cheaper ones -- $3 each and up -- are this ugly yellow color that makes everyone look jaundiced. The daylight ones run $4-6 each.

All fluorescent bulbs take about 15 minutes to slowly reach full light output -- and you must leave it one for at least that period to realize its full long life.

I turn lights on and off as I go, using a dimmer when practicable. I noticed no significant difference when I originally tried switching over to fluorescent. But then, my level-billing for a 100% electric house runs $240/month anyway. I use reasonable care to conserve, not going over the high side on the subject.

Reading the warning label on fluorescents is sobering. Seems our government is trying to not only send our lightbulb factories [and jobs] overseas, but to poison us in the bargain.

As for LEDs...well, when one of those puppies costs upwards of $20 for one of the lousy things, I will look elsewhere.

All in all, I will continue to use incandescent as long as they are available...and I have been stockpiling 60s, 75s, and 100s for over a year now...they cost less then $1 each unless you buy GEs bulbs. GE bulbs never meet the advertised life...usually about 75% of it.

If you truly value the environment you will buy only Made In USA lighting products [and car/hybrid batteries!] to avoid the manufacturing process pollution. [It is tightly controlled here...Made in China isn't.]

September 27, 2011 at 7:37 p.m.
rolando said...

LibDem. Keep trying at Atlas Shrugged. There are many parallels therein.

September 27, 2011 at 7:41 p.m.

Hmm, too bad the editorial doesn't mention the steps for the lung transplants from all the extra coal dust released into the atmosphere due to using incandescent bulbs. Not so much here, but the funny thing about the air, it keeps moving around. Thanks, but no thanks, people upwind of us, I'd rather you stop poisoning the air I breathe, even if around here we're lucky enough to have hydroelectric and nuclear power. And that's not even bringing up the inevitable deaths in Coal Mines.

Not that I've ever followed the EPA instructions, they're like most instructions, full of every possible precaution and concern, and about as sensible for most people as the OSHA instructions for putting in a lightbulb in the first place. I have somehow failed to die from mercury poisoning, though I admit, I've only broken 2 or 3 CFL bulbs that I can recall. I did get a tetanus shot once from a broken incandescent, but that was probably excessive caution anyway.

I wouldn't have minded if the federal government HAD gotten involved in stopping the hunting of whales, we would have had a lot more of them around. As whale-hunting involved interstate and international commerce on the high seas, it would seem to be a federal issue, so it shouldn't be a constitutional problem there. Candle-wise, you can find some fire codes even from the days of ancient Rome, so don't go whining about the US government telling you what to do, Caesar was lopping off heads for causing fires long before George Washington ever chopped down an Apple Tree. If you want an American example, go check out the banning of thatched roofs and wooden chimneys in the 1600s. Oh the horrors of the government telling people how to build their homes! They even went into houses and made sure your chimney was properly swept! But if you want to stop the coal and other fossil fuel plants from poisoning the air, I'll take that and let the incandescent bulbs stay in stores. You will note that you are not being stopped from lighting your house however you like, the restriction is on commerce, not on your personal lighting. Go figure, the government trying to stop companies from profiting in ways that causes great amounts of untraceable harm to others. I suppose if you want, they could just tax the health costs upfront from the excess coal burned. Or they could just charge you immediately for the power used. That'd probably make you really think about the price of a CFL since you'd see all the costs, not just the production.

September 27, 2011 at 9:01 p.m.

Apologies, but I'm a bit loquacious so I have to double-post here:

But if you're concerned about the reality of the lower power usage, just go to any large office or commercial space. See them used all over the place. For a reason. It does reduce their bills, and has for decades. That's because they don't just look at the purchase price, but all of the costs. Most homeowners won't have accountants to check things out though. Don't get turned off just because the initial price seem higher.

Which are getting fairly cheap now, I would not patronize the place where you are getting CFL bulbs for 3 dollars. Even aside from the recent EPB promotion which got me some fine bulbs for under a dollar, the cheap ones are 6 bucks or less for a pack of 4. If you want to stick with the GE brand, they're still about 12-15 bucks for a 6 pack. Unless you want to get the Reveal kind, but hey, that luxury is on you either way. LEDs are a good bit pricier, but their power usage is much lower, and so is the amount of times you have to change them. That's why I replaced my higher flood-lights with LEDs, while keeping outdoor CFL's in the lower ones. Also if you're having problems with the bulbs lighting up properly, get some with the cold cathode flurescent lamps, they are more expensive and slightly less efficient(though still better than incandescence), but they'll also last a considerable amount of time and apparently light up very quickly. But I've never had a real problem with the light-up, the few lamps I've gotten which weren't satisfactory I just returned and got a different brand. Nothing I wouldn't do with incandescent bulbs, I remember some of them I got once, they were just plain horrible. Had to take them back immediately.

September 27, 2011 at 9:07 p.m.
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