Friday, May 22, 2009

Light Fingers

Imagine someone suggests that you keep a thin-walled glass vessel that holds enough toxic material to pollute 1000 gallons of water in your house. The substance this vessel contains can produce central nervous system damage; may cause muscle tremors, personality and behavior changes, memory loss, metallic taste in your mouth, loosening of the teeth, digestive disorders, skin rashes, brain damage and kidney damage; can cause skin allergies and accumulate in the body; can cause the skin to turn gray in color and; may damage a developing fetus and decrease fertility in both males and females. What would you say if I told you that if the vessel breaks the clean-up process is very involved, and it is illegal to throw anything that came into contact with it into the trash? Oh, and you will need to keep about 40 of these little bundles of joy in your house. By the way, when you put electricity through them they will emit UV radiation that is about ½ as powerful as being in direct sunlight (at sea level, of course). Are you up for it? No? The fact of the matter is that you probably have a bunch of these suckers in your house already, and if I told you that someone was giving them away free I would probably be trampled like a teenager at a Who concert as you rushed out the door of grab up some more.

Of course I’m talking about compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), and the poison inside them is mercury. Even so, CFLs have been touted as the bulbs that will light our path towards the green, tree-hugging, hippie-loving future. The nasty, old incandescent bulb has been made the villain, and it is being muscled out of popular culture just like pet rocks and slapping your wife around. The incandescent bulb has been around for over 100 years, and the technology has basically remained unchanged. However, it is now the least efficient bulb available with over 90% of the energy that it consumes being given off as heat and less than 10% as light. So they are not so much “light” bulbs as they are “heat” bulbs. If the average American homeowner turned on every light in their house, they would be pumping almost 2200W of heat into the building. CFLs are 75% more efficient and last up to 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs. If every American home were to replace just one incandescent bulb with a CFL, we would save enough energy to light over 3 million homes for a year, save more than $600 million in energy costs, and prevent the greenhouse gas emission equivalent of over 800,000 cars. In fact, in 2007 enough people switched to CFLs in the US that we essentially removed as much greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere as planting 2.85 million acres of trees would have.

O.K., CFLs are potentially good, but let’s get back to that mercury issue. Without the mercury vapor the bulbs wouldn’t produce any UV radiation, and thus no light. Is it really as bad as everyone makes it out to be? Each CFL contains about 5mg of mercury. It doesn’t seem like much, but mercury vapor is considered to be immediately dangerous to life and health when levels reach 10mg per cubic meter. Here’s what the EPA recommends that you do if you break a CFL:

1. Before Clean-up: Air Out the Room
  • Have people and pets leave the room, and don't let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.
  • Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.
  • Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.
2. Clean-Up Steps for Hard Surfaces
  • Carefully scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.
  • Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass pieces and powder.
  • Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place towels in the glass jar or plastic bag.
  • Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.
3. Clean-up Steps for Carpeting or Rug:
  • Carefully pick up glass fragments and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.
  • Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
  • If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken.
  • Remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister), and put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag.
4. Clean-up Steps for Clothing, Bedding, etc.:
  • If clothing or bedding materials come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb that may stick to the fabric, the clothing or bedding should be thrown away. Do not wash such clothing or bedding because mercury fragments in the clothing may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage.
  • You can, however, wash clothing or other materials that have been exposed to the mercury vapor from a broken CFL, such as the clothing you are wearing when you cleaned up the broken CFL, as long as that clothing has not come into direct contact with the materials from the broken bulb.
  • If shoes come into direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from the bulb, wipe them off with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place the towels or wipes in a glass jar or plastic bag for disposal.
5. Disposal of Clean-up Materials
  • Immediately place all clean-up materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area for the next normal trash pickup.
  • Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing clean-up materials.
  • Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states do not allow such trash disposal. Instead, they require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken to a local recycling center.
6. Future Cleaning of Carpeting or Rug: Air Out the Room During and After Vacuuming
  • The next several times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window before vacuuming.
  • Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed.
Got all that? Yeah, right. I can see Zeke from Moosedick busting out his Tyvek suit to clean up the bulb he broke when he tried to throw an empty beer bottle out the window of his double-wide. It’s just not a reasonable suggestion for all consumers. The disposal issue is an issue that absolutely must be addressed. Right now, only 2% (that’s right, 2%) of fluorescent bulbs are being recycled which means that the mercury inside them ends up in the landfill. It is illegal in California (with other states pending) to chuck a fluorescent bulb in the trash. They must be taken to a hazardous waste drop-off area. Honestly, I find it hard to believe that every consumer is going to hop into their car (or bus) and buzz off to the local hazmat facility every time a bulb burns out or breaks. It just isn’t going to happen.

Proponents of the new bulbs are quick to point out that by far the largest emitters of mercury pollution are coal-fired power plants. The EPA states that a coal fired power plant produces 16.5 mg of mercury emissions to light one 60W incandescent bulb, but only produces 3.3mg for the equivalent CFL. So, even with the added 5mg inside the bulb CFLs beat the Edison bulbs hands down. Or do they? Here’s my problem with the EPA numbers. What if you get your energy from sources other than burning coal? First of all they assume that 100% of the power in the US comes from coal. It quite obviously doesn’t. Also, this 5mg number that is being quoted for the quantity of mercury in each bulb isn’t a requirement. It is more like a target number, and the bulbs aren’t tested to determine the actual quantities of mercury they contain. Another little tidbit that the EPA conveniently leaves out of its numbers is that CFLs are made in China. China has notoriously lax environmental regulations, and most of their power is generated by horrendously dirty coal plants. Then the bulbs have to be shipped thousands of miles by cargo ships which burn the dirtiest fuel oil before they arrive on American shores. It is estimated that as much mercury is lost into the environment in China during the manufacture of the bulbs as is actually contained within the bulbs themselves. Most incandescent bulbs are made in the USA, by the way. Here's what Rep. Ted Poe has to say about CFLs. But if you ignore all of that, CFLs do consume less energy when they are in use, so they must be good.

The reality of the situation is that we have been dealing with this mercury issue for a very long time. Current tube-style fluorescents have much more mercury than the compact bulbs. Older thermostats contain about 1000 times more than CFLs. CRTs also contain it. And we all remember the old style mercury filled thermometers that used to break and leach filth all over Hell’s creation. Shit, my dad used to have a 5lb jar of mercury that he kept around as a novelty item. Probably not the best idea, but we’ve made it this far, right? So, although the issue of introducing 40 more sources of a lethal compound into your home probably isn’t the best idea, when handled safely CFLs have the potential to be better than incandescent bulbs. However, it seems like there must be a better solution out there that doesn’t carry so much need for responsibility and stewardship on the part of the consumer.

As it turns out there is an up-and-coming contender in the lighting market that seems to fit the bill – LED bulbs. The lighting efficiency of the new high-power LED light bulbs is more than eight times that of incandescent lights, and twice as high as compact fluorescent lights. One LED bulb will last as long as 30 incandescent bulbs or 6 CFLs. LED bulbs also emit a much higher percentage of light in the desired direction. They require no warn-up time, contain no mercury, produce no UV radiation, are not shock sensitive (so they are not fragile), and operate at low temperature so they won’t burn your house down like halogens or incandescents tend to. Another big plus (for me especially) is that LED is much easier to spell than either incandescent or fluorescent. All I can say is thank god for spell-check.


Jeff Mowry said...

Great, Dan, NOW you tell us! My buddies and I used to dig out 48" fluorescent light tubes from dumpsters behind businesses for "light saber" fights when we were kids. Very dusty, lots of coughing (brilliant). Maybe that's why I didn't get past Calculus II and decided industrial design looked a lot more fun!

I saw some of the new LED light "bulbs" at Sam's Club the other day. Conspicuously absent from almost all the packaging was some form of luminescent comparisons (such as "equivalent to light produced by incandescent 60W bulb". No sale. But these will soon rule the world, no mistake--just need a bit more tweaking and production volume to reduce costs. I'm sure after everyone has them, some phantom will be released from the closet that makes us wish we'd worn our tin-foil hats under the new LED wonders.

Dan said...

We used to clobber each other with those 48" bulbs when I was young, too. Where the hell we our parents? I've done way worse than that though...I've actually eaten fish from Lake Michigan. I'm surprised I'm alive at all.

Jeff Mowry said...

Well, MY parents were safely somewhere else--they didn't like the idea of all that glass flying in the air, the mess, and whatever the creepy dust was made of.