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No, not THAT Mercury…

This blog has been stranded in Wonkytown lately, which can only mean one thing: It’s time to start yammering on about light bulbs again.

When we were talking about CFLs last week, I gave short-shrift to the mercury issue. Luckily, a helpful commenter reminded me about the controversy:

…each bulb contains about as much mercury as the dot at the end of this sentence. Multiply that hundreds of times for the bulbs that won’t be recycled, then you do have a environmental nightmare.

It’s true that CFLs contain mercury (about 4 milligrams each), and it’s also true that any amount of mercury pollution is a bad thing. And it’s completely naïve to think that a lot of these bulbs won’t go into the trash – in fact, even the EPA says it’s OK to toss them in the garbage as long as they’re double-sealed in plastic bags.

And there is a rather elaborate cleanup ritual that the EPA recommends if you break a bulb in the house. No, you don’t need to call a hazmat crew, but you’ll need to maybe shut down the furnace and open the window.

But the idea that sticking with incandescent light bulbs will help prevent mercury contamination is complete, utter hogwash.

The primary source of mercury pollution in the U.S. is burning coal for electricity generation. Despite EPA efforts to clamp down on emissions, in 2008, U.S. power plants pumped nearly 90,000 pounds of mercury into the air. That’s the equivalent of 10 billion CFL bulbs.

Ten. Billion.

And most of that pollution is concentrated in the Midwest.

As we’ve noted, CFLs use about one-fourth the energy of comparable incandescent bulbs. The EPA estimates that over its life cycle, a single CFL bulb will result in a net reduction of mercury emissions of about 4 milligrams, even if the bulb goes into a landfill.

So it seems if one is truly worried about mercury pollution, the obvious choice would be to buy energy-efficient bulbs and dispose of them properly.

There. That wasn’t so difficult, was it?

Ken Paulman

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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