Skip to main content

The Low Spark of High-Ideal Bulbs

Cleaning up a broken compact fluorescent bulb (and the toxic mercury inside) can turn any living room into a hazmat site.

Q: How many countries does it take to screw up a light bulb?

A: More and more each year.

Last year, Australia became the first nation to ban traditional, incandescent light bulbs, announcing it would phase them out within three years in favor of new low-power bulbs, which studies have shown can greatly reduce cost and increase energy efficiency in households and offices.

The European Union soon followed suit, calling for a halt on the sale of old bulbs by the end of the decade; earlier this month, Ireland became the first of its member states to enact its own ban on tungsten lights.

Not to be outdone, the United States energy bill signed by President Bush in December bans the incandescent light bulb by 2014, when all bulbs must use 25 percent to 30 percent less energy (by 2020, according to the bill, bulbs must be 70 percent more efficient than the current ones). The rules will save consumers $40 billion from 2012 to 2030, prevent the building of 14 coal-fired power plants, and reduce global warming emissions by 51 million tons annually, according to estimates from the nonprofit research group American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

China, which makes 70 percent of the world’s light bulbs, has agreed to phase out incandescent bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient ones over the next decade, a move that could lessen emissions by 500 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.

But there’s a catch: Low-energy bulbs — also known as compact fluorescent lamps — contain small amounts of mercury. They make light when electrons collide with mercury atoms inside their phosphor-coated glass tubes; applying a voltage causes electrodes at either end of the tube to energize the mercury and emit ultraviolet light.

But when you break a bulb with mercury in it, the mercury instantly vaporizes in the air and poses a health risk to people who inhale it. The U.S. National Institutes of Health warns: “Exposures to very small amounts of mercury can result in devastating neurological damage and death.”

Mercury affects the nervous system and can cause devastating brain, nerve, kidney and lung damage and, in extreme cases, death. The developing fetus is the most sensitive to the impacts of mercury, and children of pregnant women who were exposed to mercury have suffered a variety of afflictions, including brain damage, mental retardation, blindness, seizures and the inability to speak or walk.

So this month, as stores throughout the United Kingdom began pulling traditional tungsten bulbs from their shelves as part of a government mandate to completely replace them by 2011, ministers at the Environment Agency were simultaneously calling for more public education — including warnings printed on bulb labels — about the health and environment risks presented by low-energy lights.

As a sober BBC report put it: “Official advice from the Department of the Environment states that if a low-energy bulb is smashed, the room needs to be vacated for at least 15 minutes. A vacuum cleaner should not be used to clear up the debris, and care should be taken not to inhale the dust. Instead, rubber gloves should be used, and the broken bulb put into a sealed plastic bag, which should be taken to the local council for disposal.”

Indeed, mercury-containing bulbs can’t just be tossed in the trash can because of the danger of landfill contamination, and recycling programs around the world are still very much in the nascent stages: The Environmental Protection Agency lists programs for recycling mercury-containing bulbs on its Web site, and IKEA, a prominent seller of low-energy bulbs for the past decade, allows anyone to return compact fluorescents to its stores for free disposal.

Beyond the clean-up costs, however, there are other health concerns. Several health charities, joined by the British Association of Dermatologists, have protested to the government that low-energy bulbs worsen rashes in hundreds of thousands of people who have light-sensitive skin conditions. Dr. Colin Holden, president of the British Association of Dermatologists, told the BBC: "It is essential that such patients are able to protect themselves from specific wavelengths of light emitted by fluorescent bulbs, especially as they are often trapped indoors because they can't venture out in natural sunlight."

And if that wasn’t enough, concerns have also been raised in England by the Migraine Action Association and by several epilepsy-related charities, which worry that the bulbs’ flickering could pose an increased risk of seizures when the European Union mandate takes full effect. (In an ironic twist, the European Parliament late last year approved a gradual phase-out of old-fashioned thermometers and other mercury-containing instruments, prohibiting their sale to the general public by the end of next year.)

Despite the worldwide government mandates, consumers will soon have more choices in the lighting aisle beyond the compact fluorescent. Manufacturers are already rolling out better incandescent bulbs, efficient enough to remain on the market after the 2012 deadline in the U.S., and light-emitting diodes  are already becoming more practical for home and office (as evidenced during the holiday season, when LEDs have increasingly found their way into Christmas lighting displays).

So do we need the low-powered bulbs, or a law that says we need them? Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who chaired the European Union climate change conference that saw the ban on incandescent bulbs proposed, remains unconvinced.

"Most of the light bulbs in my flat are energy-saving bulbs. They're not yet quite bright enough,” she said. “When I'm looking for something I've dropped on the carpet, I have a bit of a problem.”