Compact fluorescent light bulbs are safe, and they look great, too.

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Feb. 5 2008 7:39 AM

The Case for CFLs

Compact fluorescent light bulbs are safe, and they look great, too.

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Ah, but what if your CFL bulb shatters? First off, don't panic: Unless you plan on picking up the glass with bare hands and then licking it, you're almost certainly safe from harm. Just follow the EPA's easy cleanup guidelines, which include placing the remnants in a sealed plastic bag and washing your hands when the chore is finished, and all should be well. (Also, use common sense and don't place CFLs where they can be damaged by young children.) As for that oft-told horror story about the woman in Maine who was quoted a price of $2,000 to dispose of a busted CFL bulb, don't believe it—at least not entirely. She may have been the mark for a shady contractor; get the facts here (PDF) and here.

Even a broken CFL bulb won't leak too much toxic metal. According to the EPA, just 6.8 percent of the mercury in a CFL bulb—that's at most 0.34 milligrams—is released if it shatters. OSHA's permissible exposure limit for mercury vapor in the workplace is 0.1 milligrams per cubic meter, so you'd have to break that bulb in an extremely cramped space for there to be an appreciable hazard.

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Critics of CFLs have stressed that the mercury savings may be negligible in areas such as the Pacific Northwest, where hydropower is prevalent. (A Seattle newspaper columnist makes the case here.) But keep in mind that all power grids are at least partly dependent on coal; according to the EPA's Power Profiler, for example, Washington's Puget Sound Energy still derives 34 percent of its fuel from coal. As a result, CFLs still have a significant edge in terms of mercury emissions, to say nothing of greenhouse gas emissions.

There is one major knock on CFLs, though, and that's the current dearth of recycling options. Because of the mercury issues, it's unwise—and often illegal—to throw spent CFL bulbs in the trash. (A single broken bulb is one thing, but thousands upon thousands of broken bulbs in a garbage dump could be seriously bad news.) You can find local recycling centers here, take your bulbs to the nearest IKEA, or use a mail-in service such as RecyclePak. All of these options, alas, require a bit more motivation than tossing your beer cans in a blue bin. But look for several major retailers to set up recycling drop-off boxes this year, in order to goose their CFL sales.

The last, desperate swipe at CFLs—as elucidated by the Lantern's colleague last week—is that their light is cold and dreadful. Perhaps this was true in years past, but the Lantern just doesn't see it anymore: In a recent test, Popular Mechanics rated CFL light as far superior to that produced by incandescent bulbs. Don't believe the hype? You've got nothing to lose by trying a single CFL bulb (one that's received EnergyStar certification) and seeing for yourself. And then, once you've become a convert, please spread the word.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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