Shedding Light on CFLs, Mercury, Options

Planning & Interiors
Column 34 – May 13, 2011
TW BECK Architects
170 So. Saint Vrain Ave. ~ P.O. Box 57 ~ Estes Park CO 80517
Phone: 970-586-3913 ~ Fax: 970-586-4211
Email: [email protected]
Greening America’s Homes for a Sustainable Future
Shedding Light on CFLs, Mercury, Options
One solution to saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL).
But there are mixed reviews about these bulbs. Initially costing in the neighborhood of $30 each they are now available for
as little as $1 after a push by the Energy Department in 1998 for manufacturers to create more affordable CFLs. This
resulted in a broader, more affordable selection of bulbs but with cheaper components. Almost all CFL manufacturing is now
done in Asia so quality control can vary substantially from company to company.
The result has been that some people praise CFLs for their long life span and believe they are a great choice.
Others complain of slow warm-up, flickering, poor dimming, shortened life span and unpleasant colors of the light produced
by CFLs. Some of these bulbs are legitimately inferior. Other complaints are due to poor labeling or lack of consumer
education. CFLs characteristically are not at full illumination when initially turned on – they brighten during the first few
minutes. CFLs not designated for use with dimmers simply will not dim properly. Those not designed for use in enclosed
fixtures (like some ceiling lights) will not last nearly as long as intended due to the heat build up inside the fixture. There is
now a range of “colors” of light available in CFLs – from warm to cool to a more true, clear “daylight.” Standards for “Energy
Star” rated CFLs have been tightened as well.
But even with improvements there is still the lurking concern about the presence of Mercury in fluorescent lamps
and bulbs. Mercury is a highly toxic metal that, with sufficient exposure, can damage the brain, liver, kidneys and central
nervous system yet it is an essential element in fluorescent products. There is no risk as long as the glass remains in tact
but the EPA recommends specific steps for clean-up and disposal of broken fluorescent bulbs to minimize exposure.
First, some perspective…. We are exposed to Mercury in our daily lives – almost all Americans tested, show the
presence of some level of Mercury in their bodies. Coal contains Mercury so coal-fueled power plants throughout the US
spew it into the environment constantly, accounting for half of all human-generated Mercury emissions. Waste incinerators
emit additional mercury. On average, a CFL bulb contains 4 milligrams of mercury, compared to 500 milligrams in a glass
thermometer. The amount of mercury in a CFL is less than some power plants release into the atmosphere while generating
electricity for only one incandescent bulb.
The EPA provides the following guidelines, should you break a fluorescent bulb, to minimize exposure to colorless,
odorless, Mercury vapors.
• People and pets should immediately leave the room.
• Open a window and/or door and air out the room for 5 to 10 minutes.
• Turn off central, forced-air heating or air-conditioning systems.
• Thoroughly collect broken glass and visible powder using wet cloths and/or duct or masking tape.
• If small particles remain, vacuum using a hose attachment, keeping the room well-ventilated; don’t sweep!
• Put all debris and cleanup materials in a sealable container and put outdoors in a trash receptacle or protected
area until materials can be disposed of properly. Don’t leave bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.
• Proper disposal means recycling!!
In several states it is unlawful to dispose of fluorescent bulbs as universal waste and failure to recycle unnecessarily
dumps tens of thousands of pounds of additional Mercury into the environment. Many home improvement and community
hardware stores offer fluorescent bulb recycling; recycling kits are available for storage and transportation of spent bulbs.
Beginning in 2012, incandescent bulbs must meet more stringent requirements to remain on the market. Promising
developments, such as hybrid electric lamp technology, almost double the efficiency of an incandescent lamp by blackening
the tungsten filament with a short pulse laser.
A great alternative product is the LED (light-emitting diode) bulb, which is becoming more affordable and, once
available primarily for specialty lighting, is now available for more traditional applications including bulbs for home, business
and vehicles. LEDs can be far more efficient than other types of lights, using less than nine watts to yield as much light as a
40-watt incandescent and the bulbs can last for tens of thousands of hours. They contain no mercury, light is instant, and
according to manufacturers, turning lights on and off doesn’t decrease life span. Improved color, quality and disbursement of
light – as well as the familiar screw-in bulb bottom for general lighting is bringing LEDs more into the mainstream for
consumers, now readily found at many home improvement and hardware stores.
Thomas Beck has practiced architecture in Estes Park for more than twenty years and since his college days has
been an advocate of alternative and renewable energy, as well as sustainable living and design. He has developed
substantial expertise in the field and is known for his personal “off the grid” home. In addition to residential and commercial
design he provides energy audits and recommendations to optimize the energy efficiency of your home or business and
lower energy costs. He is a member of the American Institute of Architects, US Green Building Council, American Solar
Energy Society, Colorado Geo Energy Heat Pump Association and Estes Park Sunrise Rotary. For articles on a variety of
energy and sustainability topics visit For more information on Beck Architect’s
services call 970-586-3913.