January 6, 2011

CFL Bulbs: Potential Mercury Danger

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced that they “improved” its guidance on how to clean up a broken compact fluorescent lamp (CFL). Included with the guidance is a new consumer brochure with CFL recycling and cleanup tips. Why is it you may ask, EPA pays attention on broken bulbs? They don’t tell you how to clean up a broken laptop or an ipod, do they? Well, as most of us know, CFLs contain mercury sealed within the glass tubing, an average of 5 milligrams. When a fluorescent lamp breaks, mercury vapor is released, which may pose health risks. EU’s Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks asserted that when you are exposed to a broken bulb, there is a danger that “long-term toxicological limit values may be exceeded up to 6,000 times”. All this raises a number of questions:
· Why is it instead of just banning CFLs, EPA explicitly encourages Americans to use them?
· How come we don’t read on the CFL label something like this: “This product contains substances known to the state of California as causing kidney and brain damage”?
· Is not ROHS directive bans products containing lead and mercury in amounts exceeding 0.1 % in homogeneous materials? After all, in electronic equipment these elements present health threat only if you have a habit of chewing printed circuit boards, but releasing mercury vapor in CFL by accidentally (or intentionally) breaking may be a real threat.

A simple answer is: a CFL is more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs, and therefore it must be a politically correct health hazard. Probably for the same reason RoHS Directive conveniently exempts CFL from their requirements and allows up to 5 mg of mercury per lamp. And to add insult to the injury, the US government is phasing in between 2012 and 2014 new efficiency standards for lighting, which would preclude sale of most traditional incandescent bulbs (see Energy Independence And Security Act Of 2007 ). So, soon, we may not have a choice. European Union and Australia have already started to phase incandescents out in 2009. I guess, I am going to stock up on incandescents until we’ll be able to buy screw-in LED lamps at a reasonable cost. Of course, their "reasonable cost" will still be 10-20 times more than that of today's regular bulbs. Indeed, aside from high-intensity LEDs, they will have to include a small power circuit with power factor correction (PFC), but… we should not worry about it—the government knows what’s better for us.


rwstowe said...

I agree with your sentiments. I am upset about the upcoming ban on incandescents.


Anonymous said...

...it sure is interesting isn't it. RoHS and yet 5mg of mercury in all of these bulbs?